It’s funny when someone says they’ve had a revelation and whatever they’ve realized turns out to be completely obvious.
So I’ve had a revelation. Your characters need to have reasons for what they do. Now, I’m not saying I’ve written a novel with a bunch of characters just running about doing whatever their ids dictate. My revelation has to do with giving characters motivations for actions that, in the real world, a person might not have.
In the real world people take actions all the time without clear motives or reasons for doing so. Sometimes their reasons for acting a certain way, if they have them at all, are poorly justified and don’t necessarily follow from the circumstances. That’s the real world. But don’t try putting that into a story.
Even though the world is filled with people acting in unexpected and irrational ways, inclusion of such things in a book can stop your plot cold. Readers expect all characters, even the least intelligent ones, to have good reasons for what they do. Insert a character taking an action without obvious justification and the reader looks up from the book and says WTF. Even though a real human in the real world may have done exactly as your character did, you’ve inserted a speed bump in front of your reader’s flow.
I was finishing some final revision on my novel last night in preparation for handing it over to an editor. During a large scale battle in which the good guys are taken by surprise, my main character takes an action that one might describe as a Hail Mary. She does so without any expectation as to what the consequences of her action might be, but feels cornered and so takes this course of action anyway. It leads to an important plot development.
It’s been written that way for a year. My justification for her action was that it’s clearly something one would do in the heat of battle even though it’s just a roll of the dice. And it always bothered me. Probably because a random action results in a vital plot move. So it felt lucky and cheap to me. Lucky and cheap happen every day in the real world. But it was damaging to my story.
The good news is that my hero absolutely had a justification to take the action she did. I just decided to give it to her in an obvious way to explain the action she took and now an open seam in the flow of my story has been closed.
Now for the next step. The close edit.
Cliff’s notes: Just because it happens in the real world doesn’t mean it’s realistic.