As an author, I’m often invited to participate in roundtables or critique groups where writers discuss a particular story and offer constructive, helpful comments. Over the years, I’ve seen — and made — about every writing mistake that can happen when we sit down and attempt to translate the ideas in our heads into words on paper — or onto a computer screen.
One of the worst mishaps in fiction-writing is what I call the “born yesterday” syndrome. This is where a character comes into a story with virtually no connections to any past events, Things are suddenly happening to him or her, but why? Without any past history to inform a reader, the story events fall flat.
Here’s a quick example from a story an aspiring writer submitted to one critique group. The main character — let’s call her Naomi — is engaged at the start of the story. She runs a little business with a good friend, and her parents are getting older.
In the opening chapter, Naomi’s world is thrown into a tailspin when her fiancé breaks off their two-year relationship because of her commitment to her aging parents. That sounds plausible, I know, but big decisions like this rarely happen out of the blue, and they should never happen that way in good fiction. Naomi, you see, was totally oblivious to her fiancé’s feelings, had no idea whatsoever that he was unhappy with any aspect of their relationship.
Later, still reeling from this break-up, Naomi goes to her shop, only to have her partner/best friend announce that she’s leaving to start a business of her own, again out of the blue. It seems this partner possessed a great deal of talent in jewelry-making — or some such avocation — and had been offered financial help to get started on her own. Naomi is floored. How could this be happening?
Next, her parents take her completely by surprise when they tell her that because of dementia they’re no longer able to care for themselves and they need her to move in with them. Again, this hits Naomi like one of those bolts out of the blue. She never saw it coming.
Really? Naomi, how could you be so dumb? Were you born yesterday?
The problem, of course, wasn’t Naomi’s problem alone. Actually, the real problem was the way in which the writer handled these situations. In truth — and fiction must reflect truth to be successful — none of these situations should have come as a huge surprise to Naomi.
- In the course of a two-year romantic relationship in which both parties plan to spend the rest of their lives together, conversations would naturally occur about important issues such as the care of aging parents. If a problem occurred, it would be discussed, there would likely be arguments, there would be many emotions involved.
- Best friends know each other well. They know one another’s interests and they share news about their lives. When one gets a big opportunity, they can’t wait to tell the other about it. That’s what being “best friends” is all about. And when best friends go into business together, they become jointly responsible for the business. There are legal considerations involved. It’s unrealistic that despite the author’s claim that Naomi and her best friend had been all but inseparable for the last twenty years, Naomi not only was shocked by her friend’s decision to quit the business but also had no knowledge of her interest in jewelry-making (or whatever it was) or her recent success. Best friends? Doesn’t sound like it to me.
- Parents or other relatives don’t “suddenly” require care unless something of consequence has happened. In a situation with a loving, devoted child who cares for aging parents, there are obvious signs and obvious worries about what the future will bring. Dementia doesn’t happen in a day — barring any traumatic head injury or viral cause. It’s a long, slow, agonizing process. Watching someone’s mental state deteriorate is a painful thing.
Taken together, these situations create an unrealistic storyline that makes the main character — poor Naomi — appear not to have a brain in her head. The problems, however, were not all Naomi’s.
How could she not know of her fiancé’s unhappiness? How could she not know that her relationship was only one problem away from disintegrating? (The break-up was precipitated by Naomi’s announcement that she would have to break their date that night to spend time with her parents.) In the break-up, the long-suffering fiancé ranted and raved about how unfair it was that she spent all her time with her parents or her best-friend and gave him so little, but apparently he’d never bothered to share any of these feelings before. He could rattle off a long list of previous incidents, but it seems not once had he raised the issue with his wife-to-be.
How could Naomi not know that her friend was looking for other opportunities? It turns out that this best friend had been unhappy for a long time, that she felt Naomi was taking advantage of her — again because of the time Naomi spent with her parents. The friend was even resentful of having to work while Naomi went out with her fiancé. Did no one ever discuss any of these issues?
How could Naomi not see that her parents would soon need additional help? The writer went on at great length to tell the reader how close they were, how much time Naomi spent with her parents, how she felt obliged to be involved with every aspect of their medical care. Yet she was caught off-guard when her parents asked her to move in with them? We’re left to wonder why no one mentioned that possibility until the moment when this poorly-planned story began.
The problem, you see, was that not only Naomi, but all of the characters suffered the malady known as “Born Yesterday syndrome.” These characters did not exist prior to the day the story began. We’re told that they did. We’re told that they had friends, families, romantic and business relationships, but telling a reader about the past means nothing unless the characters’ actions are based upon them.
In the proverbial nutshell, none of the events taking place in the story could have happened without some prior knowledge. The aspiring author created a lot of drama, but it was both meaningless and senseless because she created characters who appeared to have been born yesterday. Their actions made no sense in the context of the relationships and events described.
All of this is a lengthy way of saying that good characters in stories need to be real. That means they were born long before they walked into the story. They had a childhood. They grew up in a specific place, went to school, had all the normal human experiences — assuming you’re writing about human beings — and learned a lot about the world around them.
Mind-shattering and life-altering events can happen out of the blue, but only when they’re external events. Internal events — those momentous decisions and natural progressions in life — don’t occur suddenly or spontaneously. There are signs along the way, pointing to what’s going to happen.
Don’t let your characters be clueless. Build your stories with a sense of realism and fill them with people whose lives and relationships can be traced back in time. In truth, our characters may have only come to life in our minds yesterday, but when we place them into a story, we owe it to the reader to give them more than a name. We need to give them a life, as well.