How Believable Is Your Character’s Storytelling?

The art of persuasion, the art of dialogue, the art of storytelling—all collide in this info-packed Storycraft segment. Are your characters convincing enough? Will their skills and subtlety measure up? Let’s find out.

Telling a far-fetched story and having others believe you isn’t easy. Sometimes, even relatively ordinary accounts can be received with scepticism, like how you ate the last cupcake because you wanted to save your dieting friend the pain of trying to resist it. (Of course you did.)

When your audience is sceptical, you can phrase our accounts in certain ways and use certain techniques to make them more believable. In the previous post, we looked at the nine techniques people commonly use when constructing factual accounts, as described by Edwards and Potter. Now let’s apply those techniques to the fiction world.

Let me just take a moment to clarify something. When I refer to ‘stories’ in this post, I mean descriptions of events that happened to your character, as told by your character—for example, your character may tell her best friend the story of an encounter she had with a ghost, using some of the techniques identified by Edwards and Potter to make this story more believable and less far-fetched.

That all clear? Lovely. On to the good stuff then.

Fact construction techniques—those nine means of convincing others covered previously—are pretty useful to writers. In using these techniques, your characters provide you with several opportunities to increase the realism of your novels, create conflict and ‘show’ the reader things about your characters rather than just ‘tell’ them. Here's how.

Make Your Dialogue Reflect Real Life

While it's important to remember that dialogue in novels shouldn't mimic all aspects of everyday conversation (all those 'ums', 'uhs' and corrections would become tedious after a while), including features that are found in real speech can make our characters' dialogue more realistic and less forced. By using some of Edwards and Potter's techniques for fact construction, we can make our characters more relatable, as they're phrasing things in a way that our readers recognise and use themselves.

When deciding which of the nine techniques to include, keep in mind which would be:

Most suitable for your current scene

Choosing a technique that doesn't fit with the tone or pace of the scene can be jarring to your readers and make your character's speech seem unnatural or unconvincing. For example, if your character's in a hurry or replying to quick-fire questions, she may be less likely to use lengthy vivid descriptions, instead opting for short extreme case formulations. Of course, if your aim is to show that your character isn't very good at creating convincing stories, then having her use an inappropriate technique would be suitable to the scene.

Most likely to be used by your character

Certain techniques, such as empiricist accounting and category entitlements, may be more likely to be used by certain people than others. Base your choice of techniques on what's appropriate for the character, based on her personality (is she a meticulous person, favouring detailed accounts?), education (is she highly educated?), whether she's fully committed to telling the story, and so on.

Most effective for communicating information about your characters

In other words, which techniques are the best for 'showing' details about your characters, so that you can avoid 'telling' them? Because this is such a powerful technique, let’s cover it in more detail now...

Show, Don't Tell Through Dialogue

Dialogue is particularly useful for subtly revealing details about your characters—their background, their personality, their interests, etc. Through using some of the fact construction techniques, you can hint at important information about your characters, letting your readers work it out for themselves rather than straight up telling them about it. Not only does this make for more interesting storytelling, requiring your readers to read between the lines, it's also much more satisfying for your readers when they do work it out.

So what can you reveal about your characters through the nine techniques for fact construction?

Personality and Skills

For starters, you can show how persuasive your character is and reveal a little about her social skills through her dialogue. If she can convince others that her story is true, especially if she's lying through her teeth, then that indicates to the reader that this is a skilled character who's socially competent. If she messes up her fact construction or fails to convince others, then that might indicate the opposite.

Demonstrating Stake

Using fact construction techniques in dialogue is also a good way to subtly reveal your character's stake, or personal interest, in a matter. Does she have an ulterior motive for telling her story in a particular way? For example, she may use fact construction techniques when recounting her friend's recent strange behaviour to persuade listeners that she's a concerned friend, when her real purpose is to discredit her 'friend'. Contrasting your character's dialogue with her thoughts is one way to do this. Having her overdo it with one of the techniques, making her ulterior motives more obvious, is another possible way.

Details About Other Characters

'Showing' aspects of a character through dialogue doesn't just have to apply to the character who's using the techniques. Readers can infer things about the characters who are listening through the techniques the speaker uses to persuade them and how they respond to these techniques.

For instance, people tend to use fact construction techniques when they're talking to a sceptical audience. Therefore, the very fact that the speaker is using these techniques in the first place means that the listeners will probably be sceptical about the story or suspicious of the speaker's stake in the matter. That your character is using fact construction techniques can hint towards this scepticism.

Dialogue is a golden opportunity to kill two birds with one stone so always remember to use your character's words to hint at important details about herself and her audience.

Create Complications for Your Characters

In using fact construction techniques, your character’s trying to persuade people to believe her, but having her convince them and move on without incident isn’t very interesting. How can we sow the seeds of conflict into our novels through the use of fact construction? That can depend on two things: how truthful your character is being and whether people believe her.

Truthful and Believable

Say your character’s being honest when she tells her friend that she saw a ghost and, because of her masterful use of fact construction techniques, her friend believes her. What could be the consequence of this? Will they try to investigate further? Do they try to hide it from others or attempt to persuade them too?

Prompt: So your character’s just persuaded someone of something doubtful. What if they’re the only ones who believe your character’s story? How will the sceptical world around them cause them problems?

Truthful and Unbelievable

Maybe your character messes up and her fact construction falls flat. Perhaps her story’s just too far-fetched for your other characters to comprehend, despite it being true. How will your character react to being dismissed as a liar? Will she continue trying to persuade her listeners, and if so, what lengths will she go to in order to convince them? If she gives up on trying to persuade others, what will she do next, knowing the truth herself?

Prompt: No one believes your character, no matter what she says to them. What measures does she take to deal with this? Does it drive her towards an action she fears to take?

Untruthful and Believable

Your character’s smooth use of fact construction techniques has convinced her audience that she’s telling the truth. She’s an honest person, with no ulterior motives for telling her story the way she did... or not. Your character’s just passed off a lie as the truth and people believed her. What are the repercussions? Has it got her out of trouble or will the consequences land her in even more?

Prompt: Your character’s a liar, but her listeners don’t know that—and what they don’t know can hurt them. How?

Untruthful and Unbelievable

No matter how she tries, your character’s not fooling anyone. She’s lying and her listeners know it. Either her use of fact construction failed or her story was just too unbelievable, and now her audience know she’s a fibber. Do they call her out on it? What happens if they do? How will your character react—continue to lie or give up and admit the truth?

Prompt: Your character’s audience knows she’s lying and they don’t like it. What will they do to her in response?

A Mixed Bunch

Of course, your character’s audience may not all react in the same way. Mix and match which characters are convinced by her account, with some taking her word as truth and some not. How could the difference of opinion cause hiccups (or huge, seemingly insurmountable obstacles) for your character?

Prompt: Some members of your character’s audience believe her while others don’t, causing a divide in the group. Animosity festers and eventually one of your character’s former allies becomes an antagonist.

Undermine Your Character’s Arguments

What’s the quickest way for listeners to undermine your character’s account? Mentioning stake. Have someone mention your character’s personal interest in telling a tale in a particular way and it will damage her story’s credibility. For example, if your character is trying to persuade someone that her company’s products are the best, mentioning that her company pays her (and so of course she’d say that) could undermine her claims.

What to Use and When

Remember: don’t include every dialogue technique in one conversation. Spread them throughout the scene, chapter or novel, using the ones that fit in naturally with your character and the situation.

If in doubt, imagine yourself as your character. Open up a computer document or get a notebook and write their account in first person, speaking as you would if trying to persuade someone sceptical. Use some of the techniques Edwards and Potter describe if they feel right and fit with your character’s voice. Once you’ve told your character’s account, weed out the unimportant details and condense it down into a story your character can tell through dialogue.