My family and I were watching an old episode of “Little House on the Prairie” the other night when it occurred to me that the character we were introduced to for that episode made no sense. A banker had moved to town and set up a bank, and yet seemed completely unwilling to do business with anyone.
Anyone who tried to be nice or neighborly was immediately suspected of ulterior motives–they had to want something from him! Pa had asked him for a loan, and when Ma went in to ask him to contribute to a charity drive for the school, the banker accused her of trying to use her feminine wiles to influence him to approve her husband’s loan.
Now, I’ve run my own business, and I work for a bank, and you don’t get very far if you’re immediately suspicious of everyone who could be a customer. Banks make money by loaning it out, not by hanging onto it, and businesses of all kinds have to be willing to trust people at least a little. This character seemed to be determined to think the worst of everyone and anyone.
Now granted, this was a 45-minute TV show, and there wasn’t much time for further character development. If we could see his past and all the people who have tried to use him for his money, perhaps we’d understand more. But that’s not the point of this article.
The point is that while I realized the man was doomed to fail as a banker with that attitude, it didn’t really matter. My kids didn’t notice the problem, and even my wife, who realized how terrible his attitude was for business, didn’t think too deeply about the long-term consequences of the banker’s behavior. I did, but I’m a writer. That’s my job.
Most readers, so long as we don’t twist reality too hard, will be patient with us if we bend common sense a little to serve the story. While we can’t be reckless about it, they’ll forgive us when they know what kind of a story we’re trying to tell.
In the case of the banker, we could tell this was a redemption story (the episode was titled “Ebenezer Sprague”, after all). So we had to see a character who was terribly flawed and unsympathetic. We knew the type and therefore didn’t question too much whether a person like that could actually survive in business. We knew he’d be redeemed by the end and everything would be okay anyway. And we weren’t disappointed. Laura, with a little help from Pa, was able to get past his exterior defensiveness and help bring him around.
So the message here is that, while we should endeavor as much as possible to make our characters and plots make sense and conform to reality as we know it (within the parameters of the genre), our readers will allow a little room to tweak things toward the improbable if it serves the story. We don’t have to sit there and stew about how to continue writing just because it’s hard to imagine how the character reached that point with the weaknesses they’ve got.
Just don’t veer off into the impossible. We can accept a character who is blind being able to fist fight with bad guys, for example, but we’d better take at least a little time explaining how she does it. We don’t need to know so much how a grumpy, suspicious person could ever acquire the money to open a bank–or why he’d even want to. It’s improbable, but not impossible.
So don’t stress too much about explaining everything. Just make sure you explain the things that would most distract the reader otherwise and let them just accept the things that aren’t so hard to believe. It’s a balancing act, to be sure, but it can be learned.