Monday, January 16, 2012


I'm now officially on maternity leave for my second baby, and correspondingly am also the size of a whale and not doing much more than lying around groaning in the hot summer weather we're having Down Under. Mooching around means more reading, naturally, so I've been ripping my way through a very large number of e-books, in particular the whole series of Captain Lacey mysteries by Ashley Gardner, which I highly recommend. I read all eight in about a fortnight and am really looking forward to the next one.

Something that struck me with the first Captain Lacey novel was the concept of character credibility, and making sure that from the very first, your characters are 100% believable in their actions and reactions.

Especially if you're writing a series, your characters can't have traits, good or bad, that make the reader pause and question. Would that person really react like that? Would she really have known how to climb a cliff face/ read fluent ancient Greek/ load and fire a blunderbuss? Would he really have walked away from that fight/ cried when he stubbed his toe/ killed a man who stole his cigarette?

What it comes back to, really, is how well you set up your character and their background. But at the beginning of a novel (or a series) you don't have time to do that in full depth. Your readers want the action to start now- they don't want a lesson in personal history. So by the time you've seeded in bits of backstory like a good little writer, progressively over many chapters, your character will already be acting and reacting to things without the reader having a complete understanding of why.

That's where it gets interesting, for me. What it requires is that you the author have full command and confidence over your characters. Your writing bears no hint of uncertainty- just the sense of authority that you know exactly what you're doing and why. And you're also making a promise to the reader that there's a good reason for your character to behave the way he or she does- and that all they need to know will be revealed before the story is done.

I mention this in the context of the Captain Lacey mysteries- Regency crime tales set in post-Napoleonic War London- because the first novel was jammed full of unusual character behaviour from the main man, which was accompanied by frequent hints at all manner of interesting past events. It was a bit of a tightrope walk for me as a reader, teetering rather close at times to too much backstory and too much coyness in revealing the past. But the one thing that kept me reading was that Lacey as a character never wavered from his convictions, always reacted consistently, and was made flawed and interesting by his responses to various events. And in the end, when the numerous threads of backstory were brought into full light, I could appreciate that the author had in fact done a very good job of setting up a complex character with lots of potential grist for the future mill. All of the characters in the series have likewise tangled backgrounds, and all are being slowly revealed book by book, which I'm enjoying- there's always an unanswered question hanging around somewhere.

So- the key to all this, I guess, is to know your own characters and their motivations, and to practice moderation wherever possible in how you reveal their history and the reasons why they behave as they do. Trust the reader, but give them your assurance through your authorial authority that they're reading about a credible character- and that neither you or your fictional people will let them down if they trust you.


  1. Just a few weeks to go, Claire! My sister's baby came four weeks early - yesterday!

    You're the third person to be talking about authority/credibility in the last couple of days, and it's really striking a chord with me. It'd be fun to do an X on this.

  2. Hang in there, Claire! Our baby number three was preparing for his big entrance (and I do mean BIG, at 9lbs) in the dog days of summer. Something cold to drink, a fan perched close by and a good book = One Rested Mama.

    I hadn't thought of my main character's credibility quite like this before. You're right, though. I do get tripped up a bit trying to add too much backstory at the beginning. If, I the author, the one person who knows this story from beginning to end is stumbling over too many details at the beginning, then what must the reader be feeling?

    It feels a bit like meeting someone for the first time and sharing your life story, warts and all, in the first 20 minutes! If you know yourself well enough, feel confident in who you are today, then perhaps there's no need to define yourself to this new person (the reader) right out of the gate.

    I guess the answer is to trust in who your character is today. Supply those delicious little details your readers are, hopefully dying to know, later in your story and it just might feel like that 'Aha Moment' they've been waiting for.

    Perfect advise just when I needed it. Thanks!