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Balance and Character

The more I learn about writing in general, the more I realize I don’t know. Thank heaven for my writing classes.

Mary Kole mentions the necessity of a good balance of action vs. information, both on her blog and in her book Writing Irresistible Kidlit. A story needs both in order for the reader to enjoy it, to keep reading. But what I wonder is, how do you know what a good balance is? I guess the answer is different for every story.

I’ve known for as long as I can remember the importance of making the characters real to the reader. Making characters believable, realistic, and – one I hadn’t considered – appropriate to the plot. That’s possible, isn’t it? The character I create maybe a great character, one my readers can love – but is she really the right character for this story?

Mary Kole blogs about something she calls “Character Buy-in”. The character has to believe something before we, the readers, believe it. She talks about flip-flopping, and the danger of doing it too much.

Flip-flopping. Let’s say we have a character who sees some dinosaurs running around à la Jurassic Park. It’s natural to question one’s eyesight and/or sanity if this happens, and your character can certainly do both of those things. But once that’s out of the way, it’s harmful to reader engagement to keep questioning whether they’re dreaming or not. Let’s say we see the dinosaurs on page 10 and have an immediate “Nuh-uh, this isn’t really happening” reaction. By page 11, once the dinosaurs have destroyed the school, the protagonist starts to buy in. “Maybe this is happening.” By page 12, they’re back in denial again. “This is all a dream and I’m going to wake up every second.” For the reader, who is waiting for the green light to buy into the story, this will get old very quickly. As long as the character keeps flip-flopping as to whether they’re going to play along with the plot, the reader subconsciously holds off going 100% into the story. You can do this once or twice, but there needs to be a moment that I can point to on the page where the protagonist decides, “This is real and I’m going to function as if it’s real from now on.” After that, no “I must be dreaming” business. You’ve devised the plot, now sell it and run with it.

Surely the character can take another moment or two, much later in the story, to double-check that this really isn’t a dream. But don’t flip-flop every other page, even every few paragraphs, I’d think.