Reading: What makes YOU believe?


Recently I wrote up a blog post about Fourth Street Fantasy in Minneapolis, which I attended a couple weeks ago. Several people indicated interest in some of the panel topics, like:

“Truth, Lies, and Meta”

How do you get readers to believe in a character? 

What makes us believe in a world or a character, what undermines that, and how can that tension be leveraged?

I thought this would be a great topic for discussion, though at the outset I wonder if belief is too volatile a word—what we’re doing when we read is more of a suspension of belief, because we know the story is fiction going in. All my life I’ve enjoyed rereading Lord of the Rings, since that first immersive experience when I was fourteen, but I never believed Frodo, or Tom Bombadil, or Eowyn existed. Invest? Follow?

As I considered this topic over the intervening days, my initial thought was that any discussion is going to have to acknowledge subjectivity at the outset. There is no standard for Believable (or investment-worthy) characters. There are readers who criticized J.K. Rowlings for writing characters they considered flat and stereotypical, one-dimensional in action and prose. Obviously millions and millions disagreed.

Madame-Bovary coverComing at the question from another direction, a hundred fifty years ago, Gustave Flaubert complained bitterly about readers who dared to identify with the characters in his novel Madame Bovary. The reader was supposed to despise these word-puppets he’d made up, preferably finding them risible, much less admirable or familiar. He was horrified to get letters from readers who felt that he had brought their own inner lives to life, and who had invested emotionally in his doomed lovers.

Investment might be a better term than belief: what causes readers to invest in characters?

Some like avatars. I’ve heard romance readers talk about how much they enjoy reading about women like themselves falling in love successfully with the type of partner they admire most.

Others howl with disgust at that—they demand verisimilitude in their characters. And a third set would rather read about characters “larger than life” rather than collections of petty neurosis they can find around them at work and on the subway every day.


eighteenth c charatersA lot of these readers are lured by what I call the seduction of competence: characters who have agency, especially with panache. Anyone who has dreamed of stepping forward and having the right idea, which everyone responds to, and leading the way to righting an egregious wrong instead of cowering back waiting for someone else to act (or, worse, stepping forward just to be shouted down scornfully, or totally ignored) probably looks for characters who either start out as heroes, or attain heroism through hard work.

So those are the easy ones: readers willingly invest in characters they can fall in love with, or identify with, or admire. And then there are the characters who fascinate for whatever reason, like the many who couldn’t get enough of Hannibal Lector. Some are drawn to characters who are monstrous, or ridiculous.

Then there are the characters who trick the reader into investment through the complexity of human contradictions, such as the man on the way to the gallows who carefully avoids stepping in a puddle. These sorts of details can catch the imagination because they are inexplicable, and less deliberate than, say, the serial killer who is kind to cats.


Such moments can be found in stories that are still beloved, such as the old spinster whose cap is subtly altered to look as much like a widow’s cap as she dares after the unrequited love of her life (admired silently from a distance over forty years) dies, in Cranford. When Elizabeth Gaskell gave over the standard tropes of Victorian fiction (the deathbed confession, the pure, submissive heroine, the angelic child doomed to die of consumption but who first converts all the adults around with their innocence) and provided these precise and inexplicable details of her spinsters’ lives, readers were enchanted.

I’ve seen essays written over the decades after Gaskell’s death that mention the little spinsters busy pushing a newspaper across their new carpet from hour to hour as they sewed, in order to prevent sun damange, a detail more memorable than the most dramatic deathbed sermons in others of her works.

Whether these characters are poverty-stricken spinsters in a small town protecting their new rug or hairy footed hobbits trudging wearily toward Mount Doom to throw the evil ring into the lava, inexplicable details somehow make what the characters do, think, and say, become important to the reader—sometimes as important as the doings of real people in family and environment.


Woman in sunbonnet in a cabin doorway. Hand-colored woodcut of a 19th century illustration

Woman in sunbonnet in a cabin doorway.
Hand-colored woodcut of a 19th century illustration

Confounding the reader’s expectations can be so intriguing! Little actions that mask and then reveal motivation—the woman who always has to go in the door first sets up expectations of a snob, but what if she is nervous, fretful, always watching the door rather than taking center space as one who has the right? Is she leading or escaping?

The old man who jingles his keychain before making a decision may or may not be interesting, but the tightening of his wife’s lips, the way her blue-veined eyes shutter when she hears that noise, might sharpen the reader’s interest. The sudden silence over a gathering when they hear the rhythmic scrape, round and round, of a teaspoon in a cup, can spark tension: why such a profound reaction to something so mundane?

So what undermines investment in a character? The easiest answer is actions that punt the reader out of the story. I’ve seen a lot of expressions covering that: “out of character, unbelievable, shock for shock’s sake, I felt the author’s hand shoving them from plot point to plot point.”

Usually what that means is that the narrative voice has failed to provide the logical, emotional, or unconscious motivations for the characters, so their decisions and actions become unconvincing.

Then there are the characters whose narrator has provided detailed analysis and conclusions, just to be dismissed by readers as boring, or irritating, because those readers do not like being told what to think. They would rather come to conclusions about the characters themselves.

Finally, “How can that tension be leveraged?” That is the most intriguing question of all because I don’t understand it. What is leveraging in character investment? Definitions welcome!

For me, investment tends to happen not only in intriguing motivation and inexplicable detail, but when I encounter a character who can laugh at himself; in the sf and f genre, one of my longest lasting favorites is Lois McMaster Bujold’s hunch-backed, brittle-boned Miles Vorkosigan, who survives almost entirely on wit, adrenaline, and self-irony. I don’t really understand leveraging in fiction,, but I find humor a powerful leveler.

How about you?



Reading: What makes YOU believe? — 12 Comments

  1. I have to like a character before I connect with them, or invest. I think of it as immersing in a story, but investing in characters. Though I guess you can invest in stories, too.

    Anyway, if I hate the characters, even if the writing is really good, I’ll put the book down and never get the urge to pick it up. I’ll reach for something else.

    My partner is the complete opposite. He likes to be scared, the creepier the better. So he’ll get drawn in by the bad guy’s point of view. I usually find the bad guy’s point of view disturbing, but sometimes boring. I don’t know why that is.

    Anyway, we invest in completely different characters, though we do like some of the same authors, like Stephen King, though not the same ones of his books.

    • I’ve had that same reaction to the POV’s of villains. For me, it the predictability factor. If the villain is all evil all the time, I know what’s coming next, and I want to skip the tortures or the killing or whatever nastiness is coming, because nothing is going to change in that character. Evil goes on being evil. (I guess if you relish evil, that’s okay.)

      I’m somewhat with you. I prefer to like characters, or to see some sign that eventually they will become likable. Characters who change over the course of the book are more likely to bring me in than ones who don’t.

      • I think creating a plausible human villain is more difficult than creating a plausible human protagonist. This is especially true if one wants the villain to be believable yet also definitely evil, so that the readers can justifiably share in the protagonists’ desire to bring the villain down and cheer when that’s accomplished. (We might have trouble doing that when the antagonist is merely someone with a different worldview or a political agenda opposed to the protagonist.) The problem is creating a character who is clearly an Evil Villain yet doesn’t end up looking like yet another Ready-Made Evil Sadistic Emperor or Ready-Made Evil Sadistic Dark Mage. (The latter two are prevalent enough to make me wonder if writers buy them in the frozen-food aisle of their local grocery stores. In economy-size packs.)

        You, personally, created some very good villains in the Inda books, and I think that they work in large part because we readers got some fairly extensive passages from their POVs. Reading Inda, I found that Aldren-Sierlaef and Anderle-Sierandael very quickly became interesting and plausible characters in their own right. I never liked either of them, I never considered their actions justifiable, but I did find them understandable. So in that sense they are believable as characters and as villains. It’s easy to imagine real people making very similar choices in similar circumstances.

          • Fixed, and thanks!

            Yeah, Evil McEvilPants who always does the evil thing is not interesting to me, either. For one thing, they are always predictable: I remember reading one book, and every time the villain came on stage, I thought, here come the rapes and tortures, and began skimming.

  2. Goodness.

    If the characters are too evil — particularly if their opponents are the same level of evil — I start to wonder whether it matters in the least who wins. Until they get so evil I wish they could both lose.

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  4. “because we know the story is fiction going in”

    Pondering this. In fact, if we just believe, we are going to lose the effect of the story. I know a woman who taught chemistry in high school and couldn’t stand Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix because she dealt with enough of that as it was, thank you.

    I believe the term is “aesthetic distance.” There are a lot of story things that we would react to very different if they were real.

  5. I would be curious to see what an author thinks constitutes a good book. Similar to movies, often times the more popular books read aren’t necessarily the well written books that win awards. Would an author rather be popular and make money selling books? Or would the author rather receive awards, thus recognition from his or her peer group?”

    • I think that depends on the author! Some want only to tell a good story, some want awards. Then some want awards and consider themselves literary, but aren’t, and some think of themselves a simple storytellers and end up popular AND with awards.