If you’re a paranormal fantasy reader you might find this scenario familiar:
The main character, Mary Sue, has finally cottoned on to the fact that things around her aren’t quite what they seem. In fact, things are getting downright weird. The various laws that govern time and space and normality in her world are breaking to pieces around her. In short, she’s encountering the supernatural… either that or she’s just mad. This is a fantasy novel, however, so you can be 99% sure it’s not madness.
The trouble is, Mary Sue continues to insist that she is mad. She continues this insistence till you are rolling your eyes and just wish she’d hurry up and figure out that magic exists, so we can all move on.
Getting it Right
This discovery and acceptance of the supernatural can often be a problem in fantasy novels. The protagonist’s reaction to the paranormal is a difficult thing for an author to get right, and it’s a sure-fire way to irritate readers if they don’t succeed.
I find if a book doesn’t get it right, it’s because the character’s reaction is sliding too far toward one of two extremes:
The Conveniently Gullible
Most logical real-world people would have a hard time accepting the existence of magic and vampires and werewolves. Practical jokes and hallucinations are much more likely explanations. Even if a person sees something they can’t logically explain, they’ll still try very hard to explain it before jumping to the “magic” explanation.
So when an average-Joe character in a novel accepts these things with barely the batting of an eyelid… it shatters my suspension of disbelief. I feel that the character is less real, and that they’ve just gone along with things for the convenience of the story.
I also lose respect for the character. If all it takes is one sighting of a vampire-like creature and a quick explanation from a support character, and they’re sold on the whole thing? They’re gullible and passive and they haven’t bothered to interrogate things further.
The Irritatingly In-Denial
This is a character like the Mary-Sue type I mentioned earlier… the one that has seen countless examples of the paranormal at work, and perhaps even had explanations from support characters, and keeps denying their existence.
I find these characters just as irritating as the ones that blindly accept. They keep coming up with flimsy reasons to explain things away (usually some variation on “I must be mad”). This becomes quickly tedious and counter-productive to the character’s bid to survive. It often causes them to take silly actions and rely on support characters to save them.
I end up finding the character stupid and annoying… the last kind of reaction you want a reader to have to a main character.
Yes, maybe in real life a person might spend a long time coming to terms with something supernatural (I know I would. I am one of the most skeptical people out there when it comes to supposedly “paranormal” things in the real world). But in fantasy novels you’re so used to magic that if the character takes too long to just believe, it’s frustrating.
Finding a Balance
A great paranormal fantasy manages to get this balance right… have the character be plausibly skeptical but not annoyingly in-denial.
Unfortunately, it’s still a hard thing to do. How do you know when it’s appropriate for them to stop doubting and worrying and just believe? Especially when you have a clear idea of the supernatural elements and aren’t approaching it like a fresh reader or character, not knowing exactly how it all works.
From the stories I’ve read, the moments when a character usually truly begins to believe tend to be:
- a key moment when a character sees something clearly impossible and inexplicable that convinces them (though they still have to recover and deal with the fallout of that discovery).
- when a character that has been increasingly suspicious finally puts all the clues together, perhaps confronting another character to have their suspicions confirmed (e.g. Twilight).
- when a character discovers their own magical ability and uses it for the first time to great effect.
Provided these moments are not preceded by too many obvious supernatural events or clues, or followed by too much continual denying and refusal to believe, I find in general they tend to work.
Still, it’s a hard balance to strike. In my own writing I find this very difficult and am probably far from perfecting it. There’s also the added factor that readers can have differing opinions of how much doubting is too much. Ultimately I guess it’s something that authors just have to get a feel for, and have to get feedback on from readers.
Of course, the fantasy novels where magic and the supernatural are already commonplace side step this dilemma completely, which has it’s own appeal. Still, when it’s done right, there is always going to be something compelling about that magical moment of discovery, when an ordinary person realises that the impossible is, after all, not quite so impossible.