Tag Archives: fiction

Rule #3: Reality in Fiction, Part Two

I talked about making the characters in fiction real, but how real are the plot and the story?

A little bit of everything

When was the last time in life you only had one thing going on at a time?  In my life, I feel like I am constantly bombarded with something new before I have even addressed previous issues.  I never have a moment where there is only one thing I have to worry about.  Likewise, in a book, the characters need to have more business in their lives than only the primary conflict of the story.  While the book may not give any details for those other events, the events themselves need to be there.  Also, while the plot itself can only cover certain aspects of the action, the overall story needs to include virtually every emotion or type of story (comedy, adventure, romance, coming of age, tragedy, redemption, etc.).

Fortune

I am not able to control everything that happens around me.  There are often fortunate (or unfortunate) occurrences that significantly change the way my life is feeling.  The same should also hold for characters in a book.  Not everything that happens to them (or even that furthers the plot) should be in their control.  It may be some other character, divine providence, or just blind luck.

Another consideration is that the physics of the world need to be realistic.  The rules can be exaggerated or changed (for instance to include some form of magic), but must be consistent throughout the story.  The best explanation I have seen of this point is Sanderson’s First Law, which essentially states that the larger a role magic has in solving problems in the plot, the better it needs to be understood.

Time

Here is one of my personal pet peeves.  Characters are introduced at the beginning of the story, and for most of the book, readers are shown the characters’ flaws.  However, at the moment of the climax, or immediately after it, those flaws seem to have disappeared.  Now clearly, it takes time for a person’s character to change, and it will almost always happen gradually.  A very similar situation exists for virtually every major plot point as well.  It takes time to do most things.

Note that this does not necessarily refer to the storytelling itself.  The pacing of the story is one of the tools in an author’s arsenal to maintain reader interest.  I have found, however, that my interest is captured by an unpredictable plot better than nonstop action.  Also, the climax is not the end of the story.  I find that I am more annoyed than intrigued when a book is go-go-go-go-go-and done!  I want to actually see some of the resolution.

More than meets the eye…

A good book should feel like a window looking into a new world.  It should give a glimpse of what is there, but the best books also give a feeling that there is so much more just out of sight.

Rule #3: Reality in Fiction, Part One

Okay, talking about reality in relation to nonfiction writing has a pretty intuitive meaning.  But fiction by definition contains parts that have only ever occurred in the imagination.  (Note that I didn’t say they haven’t actually happened.)  How then can these parts be real?  The easy answer is verisimilitude.  That is an English teacher word which basically means it feels like real life.  So how do I accomplish that?  To me, it is about the readers’ ability to relate to the book.  I think this starts with the characters.

Good vs. Evil

All right, show of hands.  Who knows someone that is absolutely, purely evil? And I am talking EVIL.  The kind the intentionally kills kittens because they are cute, and thoroughly enjoys doing it.  You don’t know anyone, do you?  I didn’t think so.  Real people can be annoying, rude, and mean–even intentionally and consistently.  In general, I think they do so either out of selfishness or ignorance, or only to specific people or at certain times, not to everyone all of the time.  I am not saying that “evil” people do not exist, but they are rare.  The same goes on the other extreme of the spectrum.  All this being said, why then should I populate a book with only characters who are completely good or completely evil?  How can readers relate to that?  The heroes need to have their warts, and the villains need to have their redeeming qualities. 

As the author, I need to understand all the characters’ motivations.  (Note: “I want to take over the world,” is not a motivation in itself, it is a goal.  The motivation is “I want to take over the world because…”)  The better I know why the characters are doing what they are doing, the better I can flesh them out, and the more real they become.

A similar argument holds for just about any personality traits.  The more one-dimensional characters are, the less a reader will care about them.  Take, for example, Wile E. Coyote.  I could hardly wait to see how things would go awry with his plans.  He would end up falling off the cliff, or the boulder would land on him, or the dynamite would explode in his face, and I enjoyed it.  Why?  Because his character was one thing only: a mouth trying to eat the lovable roadrunner.  On the other had, take Ebenezer Scrooge.  At the beginning of A Christmas Carol, I think few people would object to an anvil being dropped on his head.  But as the story progresses, we get to know him.  At the end, I would have been horrified if he had been left to rot in his grave alone.  One-sided characters can still be good for entertainment value.  But I would not expect a reader to connect with them.

Character Development

To me, the term character development in a book has two related meanings.  First, there is the work that I as an author do to understand who the characters are, and the cues in the book that relate those things (either directly or indirectly) to the readers.  Second, there is the change that dynamic characters undergo throughout the course of the book.  I think that character development (particularly the second meaning) is the single most important component of the story that is being told in the book.  The plot is a vehicle, and the characters drive.  Not only with their internal struggles, but also with the interactions between characters.

Ultimately, the goal (at least for me) is for the readers and the characters to be able to connect.  I want the readers to say, “I know someone like that.”  Perhaps even “That’s me.”  I want the readers to feel as if they have found an old friend.  And in order for that to happen, the characters have to be real.