I had jury duty a few weeks ago and was picked for a felony trial. Whenever I mention it, people always kindly say something about what a pain it must have been, or it was too bad I couldn’t get out of it, but to be honest, I’m glad I was picked for the trial. I went into it thinking about how at least it was a new experience, and as a writer, I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to have new experiences so I can file them away in my brain to use as details in a story later (what if someday I need to write a courtroom scene?), but the experience ended up being so much more than that. I learned about people. I learned about character. I learned about writing.
It’s strange sometimes how much life teaches us about writing. As writers, I think sometimes we can tend to shut ourselves away with our books and our laptops, living in our story worlds. But being outside in the world and thinking deeply about people is so important to improving our writing. Being a juror on a trial forced me to think so deeply about characters, about motivation, about reasons for the things we say and do. I had been focusing heavily on plot in my book, and this experience was a much-needed reminder about how important character is in our novels. Character is everything. Whether or not a reader believes in the story, believes in the events, the actions, the dialogue that make up the plot depend entirely on whether the reader believes in our characters. Are they fully formed? Are they credible? Why do they say and do the things they do? After all, the characters move the plot. Plot and character are inseperable.
The trial I was on was a sexual assault case. There wasn’t a lot of physical evidence, and the physical evidence that was presented wasn’t enough to convince the jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty. So what the trial came down to was witness testimony. The accusers’ testimonies. The defendant’s testimony. The testimony conflicted. Who was lying? And how were the jurors supposed to decide? Both sides had motivation to lie. One of the accusers had lied about things before. She hated the defendant. She had reason to lie. She gave several versions of her story. The other accuser seemed more credible. She had less motivation to lie. She didn’t contradict herself. Both of these witnesses were emotional. The defendant obviously had motivation to lie: he was facing life in prison.
The defendant’s testimony was not emotional. It seemed rehearsed – which it likely was. And who can blame him – I’d have rehearsed my testimony too if my fate was on the line. But it also seemed calculated. A few of the things he said seemed unlikely. I didn’t believe he did the things he did for the reasons he claimed to have done them. I didn’t believe he was in the location he was for the reasons he claimed to be there. He and his lawyer were trying to create a story about the accusations and events, but the material they used was flimsy. It wasn’t based on emotional truth. They were trying to construct a narrative and get the jurors to believe their story, but it was a lot like when beginning writers try to force events into a plot and make their characters say and do the things they want them to without taking the time to think about how likely those events are based on who their characters are. We can not just make characters speak and act the way we want them to as if they are puppets. We must think about each character, the way that character has behaved in the past, who that character is, what that character’s motivations are.
In the end, we found the defendant guilty. We thought long and hard about why we didn’t find one of the accusers’ testimony credible. As I said before, she gave conflicting versions of the story. She had lied before. But she was also very young. The events had taken place more than four years earlier. She was emotionally distraught. The events had occurred over a long period of time, and so she may have been confusing one instance of abuse with another, which would explain the conflicting stories. Other witnesses corroborated her testimony, and we found the other accuser very credible. We also thought long and hard about why we didn’t find the defendant’s testimony credible. His entire family had testified to his character and shown he had a history of being physically abusive. He was controlling. His own testimony, the language he used when speaking, the words he chose, revealed who he was. Some of the words he used made my skin crawl. Based on our observations of character, we decided that the story the accusers brought was the truth. The defendant tried to present another story about the events, but it didn’t ring true with what we knew about him. It didn’t ring true with his previous behavior. His version felt contrived. Forced. It depended on actions based on nothing (i.e. actions he supposedly took that he did not have motivation for and contradicted all his previous behavior) and coincidence. These made his story unbelievable. And they would make any story unbelievable. Both in real life and in novels.
Character is everything. Think deeply about what makes your characters do the things they do. What are their motivations? What events of their past have shaped who they are?
A challenge: Reread a scene from your manuscript where your character takes an important action. Think about why your character takes this action. What drives him? As an exercise, write another scene about a previous event that helps explain why your character acts in this scene the way he does. If in this scene your character runs away rather than face a problem, think about why. Was there a scene in his past in which he also ran away? Is this action consistent with previous actions? If not, is there another event you can point to that explains why? For example, if the last time your character ran away rather than faced a problem, did bad consequences follow? Did he learn from the experience? Is that why he acts differently here? Characters need reason to do the things they do. Writers are not puppet masters, as much as we would like to be. In writing stories, we must create characters who feel like real people.
Good stories depend on well-drawn characters. These characters don’t have to be perfect. They don’t have to be likeable. But they do have to be believable.