Hint #16: That’s not How Human Beings Work

It’s that time again.

Welcome back to Hints, a miniseries of Mr. Horne’s Book of Secrets.

You’re not looking for a ghostwriter, and you can hardly expect anyone else to know how to write your story. Frankly, most of the help being offered to you is not helpful. Advice is just someone else’s idea of how to hit a target you’re not aiming for.

But it’s even less helpful to leave you high and dry. You can’t help but imagine that someone could tell you something to give you an idea of what needs doing.

What you could really use…is a hint.

“Hints: because you only need a little help.”

The Hunt

While shopping around for typesetters, I examined a lot of books, most of which were self-published.

And it became clear to me that the quality of the typesetting was neither correlated nor anti-correlated with the quality of the writing. Some particularly bland prose was dressed up extremely well by some amazing typesetters and book designers. And some poorly typeset books were also poorly written. But since I was only looking for great typesetting, I decided to forgive/ignore all the poor writing I encountered.

However, there was one book that caught my attention. The interior design was fantastic, and the prose wasn’t half bad, either. In fact, it was almost an example of an overlooked indie gem—the kind of book I’ve been experimentally searching for for years.

But despite its many advantages, it had one huge problem: the story didn’t understand how human beings work.

Allow me to elaborate.

Has This ever Happened to You?

To protect the author, I will not reveal the title of the book, nor will I use any of the real character names. Instead, I will call the main protagonist “Stacy”, who is less than ten years old.

The first chapter opens with Stacy’s mother and father being brutally murdered by a strange man who turns out to be some kind of high-ranking fairy. Let’s call him “the Erlking”.

Anyway, after casually killing dear Mommy and Daddy, the Erlking turns to Stacy and her two sisters and says, “Now I am going to take the three of you to the underground fairy kingdom, which you will never be able to leave!”

To which Stacy replies, “Okay, but I’ll hate you forever for what you did.”

She then takes her sisters upstairs, they each pack a bag, and then come back down and let the Erlking take them away to the subterranean court of the fairies.

And, to my astonishment, all the characters went along with this, like it was the most natural thing in the world. What had started as a promising book with capably written prose had fallen flat on its face. And there was one thing I desperately wanted to say to the author.

“That’s not How Humans Work!”

A little girl who just saw her parents effortlessly murdered isn’t going to respond with, “Well now I hate you!” In all likelihood, such a girl isn’t going to speak words at all. She’s going to SCREAM.

Or, if she’s smart, she’s going to run. Maybe while towing her sisters along, or maybe leaving them behind, hoping they will slow down the Erlking enough for her to escape. If any of the three sisters make it out the door, they are going to dash into the nearby woods and hide in the underbrush while the Erlking pursues them, forcing him to hunt them down one by one and drop them in his magic gunny sack, cackling all the way.

It would make for an extremely interesting opening. The action narrative about running and hiding, only to be viciously caught by a supernatural boogeyman is exactly the kind of high-tension opening that can really breathe life into a story.

Instead, the author chose to have the girls readily agree to accompany the man who had just slaughtered their parents like animals, albeit with the concession that, “We’ll totally hate you for this.”

And that’s just not what humans would do in that situation.

Suspension of Disbelief

And I wish I could say that this was an uncommon problem in fiction. Or even that it was wholly confined to unedited fiction that has no budget and no prospects.

But that would be a lie.

Because you’ve seen this before. Likely in low profile places, such as forum fan fiction, but also in a number of professional and highly published works. How many times have we seen an educated adult go down into the dark basement of a house where she knows a serial killer is waiting? How many times have we seen a cliched third-act breakup where the romantic leads decide they can no longer see each other for the flimsiest of reasons?

“I thought he wouldn’t love me if he knew I was a cat person, but now that I know he’s also a cat person, I don’t want anything to do with him!”

Heck, how many times have we seen an everyman protagonist who has never engaged in any sort of violent or even assertive behavior decide to step up and save all humanity just because a wizard told him to? Without any sort of gradual character growth in the interim?

It all comes down to a term you certainly have heard of: suspension of disbelief.

Because when it comes down to it, the audience can believe in dragons. They can also believe that a magic spell can transform a man into a herring, or that a little kid’s reclusive neighbor is actually an alien in disguise, or that a man obsessed with obligation and duty will join a pirate crew because he was born on Leap Day. The audience can believe all sorts of ridiculous things, so long as those things are fanciful or spectacular.

But the audience will never buy the idea that an event will happen just because the story needs it to. The hero isn’t going to leave behind his magic sword to get stolen when he goes out to fight a monster. The murderer is not going to become a good guy just because a virtuous princess told him for the first time in his life that murder is wrong. And the little girl is not going to willingly follow the Erlking to the underworld right after he chopped up her parents like stew meat.

Must I Point This Out?

If your characters are human, or even human-adjacent (sentient robots, humanoid aliens, fairies, etc.) then they must react to situations in ways that are natural for humans. And if they are not humanlike, they must react in ways typical for their particular species or category.

Atypical behavior must always have some kind of justification. A man can walk into oncoming traffic if he is drunk or stoned or blind and deaf. But unless you explicitly set up the special circumstances that allow unrealistic behavior, you can’t have people react that way.

Every writer has doubts in their head, and a lot of those doubts are unfounded. But if a voice pops in, saying, “That’s not how a reasonable person would respond to this situation”, that voice probably on to something. It is highly unusual for a writer to mistakenly believe that reasonable behavior is unreasonable, but the reverse is not true.

Luckily, the solution is a simple one.

The Reversal

If you need to get a character to go to place X, but no reasonable person would ever go to place X, then the next step is easy:

Have your character actively avoid going to place X. If possible, make them flee in the opposite direction of wherever place X is. Then, have circumstances beyond the character’s control force, coerce, or extort them into going to place X.

In this situation, the character still makes an active choice (“I will deliberately not go to place X”) but the necessity of them going to place X still ends up getting fulfilled. Yet the character has still acted reasonably at all points in the story.

It would have been realistic for Stacy and her sisters to flee the Erlking right after witnessing their parents’ deaths. It would also be realistic for the Erlking to pursue and capture the girls. Yet, in the end, the entire group would go to the fairy underworld, just like the plot needs them to.

It’s a time-tested method. In the words of a wise hobbit:

Mordor. The one place in Middle-earth we don’t want to see any closer, and the one place we’re trying to get to.


The Human Factor

If you know your characters well enough to understand how they will react to any given situation, you will never need to ask yourself “What happens next?”. The structure and progress of your story will become intuitive and pleasant to follow.

If you don’t know how your characters will react—or, even worse, you don’t understand how any rational human would react—then you need to work on yourself, not just as an author but as a thinking person in a world of causes and effects.

It may seem like a tall order. But it’s a minimum requirement for building a story. And if you understand this hint, then you don’t need advice.

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