What is believable? What does it mean to write a “believable” scene or character in a work of fiction that is not “true” to begin with? These are questions that fiction writers must tackle if they want readers to “buy in” to the tale they are telling.
Human beings act in unbelievable ways all the time, but it’s the motivation behind the actions that are most important. One fundamental element of writing is the study of human behavior and why people do the things they do. It’s not enough to simply tell a story about what our characters do. We must also explain why they act in a particular manner and do it in a way that will make our readers believe it.
Whenever a reader tells you that he or she finds your story or a particular character unbelievable, your first reaction should NOT be, “Well duh, it is fiction.” Instead, you should ask yourself, “What is this character’s motivation?” In other words, why is the character behaving so ridiculously? It’s not that your characters aren’t allowed to behave in an unbelievable manner. The problem is, you have to demonstrate for your reader that the behavior really is possible, or even probable, given the circumstances.
Sometimes, the only way to answer this question is to freewrite your way through it. Even if your freewrite doesn’t end up in your final product, you will subconsciously begin to add details to your story that you just cannot write without fully understanding your characters and their individual motivations.
So, the next time someone tells you they’re just not buying it, don’t jump to delete the “unbelievable” scene. Instead, ask yourself what believable motives your characters could have to behave the way they do. If you can manage to get those motivations across to your readers, then they might just buy into your fantastic tale after all.