08 October 2009

Logical Character Development

by Carrie Bailey

In fiction, when a writer reveals the emotions and motives of a character, if they're believable, it can make them sympathetic to the reader. Once the readers care about them, they want to keep reading about them. That's crucial. Although most writers are aware of this vital aspect of their craft, they often overlook the devices that cause a reader to lose sympathy for the character.  It happens mainly when inductive reasoning is abandoned for the sake of plot development. 

By inductive logic, I mean that we draw conclusions based on previous actions and get upset when these defined patterns are broken. 

A thief must steal when faced with a portable object of value. If the thief stole a watch in the antique shop, money in the church, and food from the restaurant, we want to see him steal at every possible opportunity thereafter.  Readers recoil when the thief starts entering grocery stores, libraries, hotel lobbies, people’s homes and leaves with his empty pockets. It doesn't make sense. What changed?

So, logically, there are only two ways a thief can resist the five-fingered discount without alerting and offending a reader:

1) circumstance prevents him (a hole in his pocket) or

2) an event changes his nature.

All of this may seem obvious, but many of my favorite television series have been cancelled after the writers took a hiatus from induction.  In fact, I was inspired to write this article when the BBC terminated Robin Hood.  Granted, the writing was never good, but the characters oozed sympathetic material, as does any rendition of the classic. In this version, the Sheriff of Nottingham joined the merry men. Maid Marian died and once romantic Robin Hood had an casual attraction to someone who later turned out to be his sister. It was not good. They didn't just shoot arrows through our established expectations, they made nonsense soup out of their character's motivations. Logic was abandoned and BBC abandoned the show.

Readers apply inductive logic to inanimate objects, too. A watch described as temperamental cannot be used to tell the time without a humorous or problematic consequence.  The intial description of the broken watch built the expectation for it to cause disaster.  So, remember when you’re editing, if you can’t explain why something fails to fulfill a reader's expectations, be logical.


  1. Well said. If you can't sympathize with a character, then why should we continue reading on? There's always something to help us sympathize with a character, even if it's something small.

  2. You're right, but I think it's when the character changes without reason that people-even if they love the character-stop reading.

    It's just too hard to believe the series of events, but writers do it all the time in TV.

  3. Characters can be forgiven for taking a new direction provided by the writer even if it's pretty shakey. But the writer needs to recognize that there's a limit to our willingness to suspend disbelief. Since I do a lot of non-fiction plot doesn't drive my vehicle but I still need to have a viable sense of direction...if I'm to keep the reader plugged in and plugging away.

  4. I agree with that statement Frank. I struggle to transition from writing non-fiction to fiction. It helps me to identify the common elements and I think sound logic is required in both.

    Imagination and logic are compatible, in fact they're vital partners in the pursuit of entertaining a reader.

  5. Bravo! I find it insulting when writers take the easy way out. When it comes to tv series, I'd rather see a favorite character written off than kept for market value. I understand that there are contracts to be considered, but when character development is weak, it weakens the entire show.

    As for movies, I'll stick to foreign films for now...