Fiction is Not Life


Fiction is Not Life

I know you know this but, in fact, good fiction makes you forget. Maybe it’s even its job to do so, to make you feel as if it is real life. That’s great for a reader but as a writer, you need to know the underlying conventions of fiction.

How fiction differs from real life

Lives have to be in crisis.

In real life, we want things to go our way. Disasters are, well, disasters and disruptive to our preferred way of living.

In fiction, a story without obstacles to overcome and crises to transcend— first, isn’t a story, and second, is boring.

The story has to be credible.

In real life, all kinds of incredible things happen. I remember watching a documentary where a Jewish woman escaped the death camps with the help of a Nazi responsible for sending people to them; she married an SS officer who knew she was Jewish; and was shunned by other Jews after the war because she had not gone to a concentration camp. Would anybody believe that if you put it in fiction?

In fiction, readers are loath to believe the inherently unbelievable. It strains their credulity (and breaks the continuous dream) if too many coincidences, strokes of luck, or people acting out of character occur. Even though all of these can happen in real life.

Readers expect a resolution.

In real life, life is messy. You’ll never know whose daughter Becky really is; or what possessed your best friend to marry the jerk. We accept that we’re not always going to know the answer or how things turn out.

In fiction, a narrative without a resolution is disconcerting for the reader. Sebastian Faulks (whose novel Engleby I adored) wrote A Week in December with a would-be suicide bomber character. Presumably I missed some deeper meaning but the novel felt unresolved for me because I didn’t understand why the character decided against bombing. Generally, fiction requires a kind of closure often not available nor possible in real life.

An ordered progression is necessary.

In real life, our conversations and arguments go all over the place. We repeat and diverge, recap and wander. The conversation can zig and zag but still fully engage.

In fiction, dialog which bounces around like real conversation is usually confusing and ultimately boring for the reader. Without realizing it, the reader expects that arguments will build on each other to some kind of conclusion.

Character’s actions have to be consistent.

In real life, we know people can be petty one moment and generous the next; caring one and callous the next. Nobody is totally predictable.

In fiction, a character which has opposing traits will kick the reader out. Hey, I thought he was selfish—what’s with sacrificing himself? Characters who aren’t consistent can be portrayed but you’d better be prepared to explain why.

See? The conventions of fiction are actually quite different from real life but we must adhere to them to give the reader the feeling of real life. Confusing, no?