“He said the events in my novel were unrealistic. But every single one of those things has actually happened in my life!”
These were the words of an aspiring novelist friend when she recapped her conversation with a well-known agent. He objected not to the fictional parts of her story, but the real-life events she’d woven into the narrative, ones that sounded too incredible to be realistic.
The conversation reminded me of something that good novelists know but rarely verbalize: when writing realistic fiction, our goal is not reality itself but versimilitude–the appearance of reality.
The phrase “the truth is stranger than fiction” is one hundred percent true, because real life doesn’t have to overcome the hurdle of believability. It happened to you, therefore it’s true. However, novels operate within a structure that is far more logical than actual reality. Readers enter into a silent agreement with the novelist: they will accept the world we create, as long as we stick to the rules of that world. The minute we violate that agreement, the deal is off… and the book is relegated to the Goodwill bin.
That means that while real people may do unpredictable things and act out of character; fictional people do not. Even if the characters surrounding the protagonist think he’s being unpredictable, it’s our job as writers to make sure the reader is aware of the backstory or the quirk or the kink that makes that action totally plausible. It’s the sense that all the pieces fit together into a logical whole–the “aha!” moment if you will–that makes a story satisfying and worthwhile.
So feel free to make your characters as real as you possibly can–just be sure to help your readers connect the dots. Because good fiction is far more logical than reality.
Tags: realistic fiction