MasterClass Report: “Character Arcs and Suspension of Disbelief ”
Mihaela Marija Perkovic (Croatia)
Croatian science fiction writer Mihaela Marija Perkovic (米哈埃拉·玛丽亚·佩尔科维奇) presented a MasterClass at the 7th EU-China International Literary Festival analysing the management of character arcs and the suspension of disbelief in a short writing class, with a focus on troubleshooting plot holes and handling characters when writing novellas and novels.
Perkovic is an award-winning author, editor, scriptwriter, translator, workshopper, con-runner, and geek whisperer. She has been running writing workshops for 15 years, both in science fiction fandom and in Croatian schools and culture societies. She first discussed the concept of the “suspension of disbelief”, a critical element in science fiction and fantasy writing.
“One thing needs to follow from another, what happens, and we need to be able to believe it. And when we read genre that also means we need to accept some things, like there’s magic in this world if we read fantasy or it is possible to colonize other planets we’re reading science fiction. And when you say ‘yes’ to this, basically you’re saying yes to suspension of disbelief, you’re willingly disregarding what you know to be the reality of the situation. And you go into the story,” she said.
“Your job as an author when you’re constructing multiple subplots and character arcs is not to kick the reader out of that suspension of disbelief,” she added, referring to writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and JRR Tolkien who wrote on the topic.
“For instance, Tolkien believes that you as an author, that the burden is on you and not on the reader, and the burden on the author is to create an internally consistent world of fiction. So you need to construct a world and have your characters behave in that world according to the laws of that world consistently so that your reader can have a secondary belief in the reality of that world. And this is how you do basic world building,” she said.
Moving on to the issue of plot holes, and more importantly how to avoid them, Percovic said she started analysing this aspect of the craft after wasting a lot of time herself having to revisit material when she was starting out as a writer.
“I used to lose a lot of time making mistakes in character arcs and character points of view when writing longer works of fiction because I had come into longer fiction through script writing. So this was kind of a problem. So how do you not take seven months to do revisions? Because keeping plot holes closed when you juggle multiple characters and various subplots can be a challenging thing.”
As a point of reference she introduced the Seven Point Plot, which is the standard Western plot structure that involves Hook, Plot Point 1, Pinch Point 1, Mid Point, Pinch Point 2, Plot Point 2 and Resolution.
“This is probably familiar to you from all the Hollywood movies that you’ve probably seen… At the beginning when it’s Hook it’s a starting state and what the character is trying to do. In Plot Turn 1 they tried to fix some problems. And in Pinch 1, they fail and then they tried again and they fail and then they try and win support before they manage to actually succeed and have some kind of resolution. So that’s your standard plot,” she said.
But Perkovic said this reference while useful for plot development was not enough for writers to avoid plot holes.
“Sometimes I will be reading a well written book that is fast paced and has action, everything is happening at the right time but still something feels odd and it’s sometimes very hard to put your finger on what is exactly not okay there. Watching a movie, a TV show or reading a novella or a novel sometimes just stuff feels off. And what I’ve discovered, the odd feeling is something that I found in my own work a lot but also in the work of others… You have this feeling of not quite being satisfied and I’ve nailed that down in my own work to the fact that I didn’t do due diligence with my secondary characters.”
She came across a solution when she and some associates were reviewing one of her stories that seemed to be not quite right but they could not put their finger on the precise issue.
“What we did is we decided to tell each other the story but not from the plot point of view. So we’re not telling what happened to each other. We chose to have sessions where we told each other what was happening following the plot outline of the novel. But each time we told it we told it from a particular character’s point of view, how they see it. Because if you listen to five people tell a story of what happened when there was a car crash around the corner you will hear five different stories because they saw it different. So if you want a reader to feel that your world building is real, consistent, all of your characters need to know where they are.”
As they were doing that they developed a spreadsheet with a row for each character and a timeline showing what they were doing as events unfolded.
“When we were telling the story from each character’s point of view we wrote it down. So in the first column in the Excel sheet you see the names of the characters and then the B, C, D, E columns are the beats of the story. And in the text, is what happened in each beat and where it happens,” she said.
“So this proved to be a stroke of genius when you have to juggle a lot of characters because while you are telling it from a certain character’s point of view you will forget things that aren’t happening to them but these are things that still need to happen in the plot for it to move forward. So you switch characters and then you will see it from other points of view and discover if you’ve forgotten anything in the version of the first character. It also enables you to set a timeline… So this is kind of a shortcut that enables me to keep in my head at the same time about 20 characters what their personal goals are what the shared goals are, what their antagonisms between each other are and how all of that ties to the plot. And when you’re working on a work of fiction that is long like a novel, you really appreciate a spreadsheet like that because at a glance you can remind yourself where you are at and what it is that you need to know when you are writing a particular chapter.”
“So doing the character sheets and telling yourself the story over and over again from a different character’s point of view fixes that feeling of ‘this is a little bit off’ and the reader is not entirely satisfied, because stories are psychological. We all love to know what other people are feeling or thinking in order to connect with them. And if we don’t get that we will be ever so slightly disappointed at the end of work of fiction, even if we loved the world building and the main character and everything,” Perkovic said.
With a focus on the suspension of belief, an engaging character arc and an efficient system to ensure no plot holes are able to worm their way into a narrative, the writer should be ready then to pen their work, she said.
“In that way, that suspension of belief will be an enjoyable activity for your readers. So, after you do all this thinking you basically write it out.”
The 7th EU-China International Literary Festival brought leading European and Chinese writers together to embrace the core theme of “Explore·Imagine·Inspire – Science Fiction, Fantasy and Worlds Beyond”.