To tell a story is to communicate an emotional movement embodied in the behaviors of imaginary people; aesthetically, it is the creation of imagery progressively connected, rich with mysterious subtext. A story should disturb something in you, move something in favor of sadness or beauty or hope or, best yet, strangeness. When a good story is done, there should be a sense of movement from one point to another, a journey of barely articulable feeling experienced by the characters and shared by the reader. A reader should expect their thinking, their imagination, to be challenged by a story, not just to have their expectations confirmed. Let’s leave that for our superhero movies.
And yet: “I don’t buy it. I don’t buy that this character would do that.”
It is a common criticism of narratives. When we say that, we are saying one of two things:
The first kind of response is incredibly problematic, though usually unacknowledged by the person having the response. It follows from a closed-off reading of the material that does not account for the incredible variety of human behavior, or the reality of people doing things, sometimes suddenly, sometimes with purpose, that run counter to their normal “self.” What the reader is saying is that they cannot imagine someone doing such a thing because they themselves would never do such a thing. But that’s one reason why we tell stories: to make our minds available to thoughts other than our own. A reader who doesn’t “buy” a decision a character makes, or a direction a story turns, should be careful that this opinion isn’t based solely on their inability to imagine themselves behaving other than ideally.
Of course, the writer, on receiving this kind of response, even if the reader is not a perceptive one, must ensure that the failure of imagination is not a result of the incoherent emotion of the story. That is, no matter how unlikely the action taken, it must be grounded in previous actions, each of which charts a progression of experience. In the end it is only important that the decisions/actions of the character be emotionally true in the context of previous events.