Making Sense of Life’s Disorder — by Pat Bertram

Life is often disordered, but fiction cannot be. We read fiction to make sense of life’s disorder, and we demand that things make sense. No matter how well ordered the rest of the plot, when a stranger comes and simply hands the hero the one element he needs to complete his mission, we feel cheated. The hero should have to work for his goals.

This same order must be inherent in every bit of the book, characters as well as plot. Foolish and spontaneous actions, arbitrary decisions and behavior make the story unbelievable. A character can’t simply wake up one morning with a desire to change jobs, or go on a quest, or hunt for a murderer. While such whims are a part of our lives, they are not part of fictional characters’ lives. All their decisions must be motivated.

A character can wake up one morning with a desire to change jobs, for example, but the author needs to add a few words to explain why: a quarrel with a boss, a promised promotion that doesn’t materialize, a backbiting co-worker. If a character must quit on a whim, the author has to establish motive from within the character. Perhaps the character always acts on whim, in which case the author needs to show that. Or perhaps it’s June; the scents seeping in the open window remind the character of the long summer days of childhood, and he has an overwhelming need to experience that freedom again.

Readers will believe almost anything an author wants them to believe, as long as it is motivated.

At the beginning of my book, More Deaths Than One, I have Kerry, a graveyard-shift waitress, showing an interest in Bob, the quiet hero, who stopped by the coffee shop every night for a hot chocolate. I always thought it was enough that she was bored and was playing games with him, trying to get him to talk, but a reader told me she found Kerry’s motivation for involving herself with Bob a bit thin.

Because Bob is debilitated by headaches and nightmares, I need Kerry to push him into action when he discovers that the mother he buried twenty years ago is dead again and that he has a doppelganger living what could have been his life. If her motivation for involving herself with Bob isn’t believable, then the whole book falls apart.

On the other hand, most readers seem to think the connection between Bob and Kerry is believable. She’s bored, unhappy with her present boyfriend, craves excitement. Perhaps boredom isn’t a good motivator (though we know that it is — we will do almost anything to keep from being bored) but once Kerry starts uncovering the truth of Bob, there is no way she’ll walk away from him and the excitement he brings to her life.


Pat Bertram is the author of Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. All Bertram’s books are available both in print and in ebook format. You can get them online at Second Wind Publishing, Amazon, B&N and Smashwords. At Smashwords, the books are available in all ebook formats including palm reading devices, and you can download the first 20-30% free!


Filed under books, fiction, Pat Bertram, writing

4 responses to “Making Sense of Life’s Disorder — by Pat Bertram

  1. I love this post. I remember when I was learning to draw in school, trying so hard to make my pictures like photographs. My dear big brother asked “Why not use a camera? It’s faster.” It’s the same with any art I suppose–to keep what needs to be there and leave what doesn’t (so don’t draw incongruous lamp-posts unless I’m in Narnia).

    • In art, you can have incogruous lamp posts — I’m sure I’ve seen one in some surrealist’s painting — but if you add an incongruous lamp post in a book, such as a lamp post in the middle of the desert, you need to have a reason why it’s there, otherwise your readers will worry about the lamp post instead of the story. So not good!

  2. Sherrie Hansen

    I like the reasoning behind this, Pat. Good point.

  3. You are so right. It’s a compliment that readers take your books to heart enough to ask about your character’s motivation. It shows the one that questioned you really cares.

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