So, I’m trying to plow through the end of some line-edits, which means I’m a bit short on time. But I really wanted to talk about something that’s come up once or thrice recently. It’s an old idea I’ve talked about a few times so… don’t be shocked if you smell a bit of recycling in here.
One thing we all (hopefully) work for in our writing is realism. We want our characters, their dialogue, their worlds to feel real
. If my story’s set in the real world, I want it to have that level of detail you can only get with authentic knowledge and experience. If it’s a made-up world
, I want every aspect to be as lifelike and believable as possible.
Because of this, we writers get a bit of a… a reputation. And it’s kinda earned. We people-watch and eavesdrop and sometimes travel to weird places just to get an idea of what the air smells like. Some of us give our characters feet and ankles and knees of clay
and overly-complex pasts
. Yeah, us
. I did this too. We rewrite dialogue again and again to make it as real as possible. We sometimes add random events to the narrative—even major events
—to give that broader sense of uncaring fate. Anything we can do to cover our story with a big, thick, oozing coat of reality.
There’s one problem with this, though.
Nobody wants reality.
Oh, they may say they do, but they’re lying. To me or to themselves. My readers want fictional reality, not here-in-the-real-world reality. They want characters who win (maybe not cheerfully or without scars, but they do win). They want clean dialogue. They want things to make sense and story threads to get tied up, preferably with a very neat, precise knot. Or maybe a bow, depending on how wide some of my plot threads are.
Let me give you some examples.
Before I wrote fiction full time, I interviewed a lot of people
. And one thing quickly became clear to me as I transcribed these interviews
—real dialogue is a mess. When people talk in reality, they pause a lot and trip over their words and sometimes make false starts that they have to sort of go back over. They can drone on for several minutes at a time. They talk over each other. If you’ve ever looked at an unedited transcript of a conversation, you know that real dialogue’s the worst possible thing for fiction. Readers would claw their eyes out, and everything would take forever to say.
So we don’t write real dialogue. We write “real” dialogue, lines that seem like the kind of things real people would say. The dialogue gets cleaned up and tightened and measured out
to make it sound authentic, even though it’s being crafted. And then people say, “Wow, her dialogue felt so real.”
You’ve heard that sort of thing before, yes?? The dialogue seemed real or felt real or sounded real. Think of how often we all phrase things like this—which is pretty much quietly admitting we know it isn’t how real people talk. Even though it feels like how real people talk.
As I mentioned before—heck, I’ve mentioned it here a few times–I made this mistake. When I was starting down my pro fiction path I copied real people’s real speech patterns into my first serious attempt at a novel. Then I had a couple of real editors mention that as a specific reason I was really being rejected. It didn’t matter that it was real dialogue, because it wasn’t “real” dialogue.
Here’s another angle. Weird, unbelievable stuff happens in reality all the time. There are odd coincidences. Unlucky circumstances. Heck, humans have a bad habit of dying in freak accidents and leaving so many things incomplete and unresolved
But we’re not talking about reality. We’re talking about fiction. And in fiction, all things are equal. I beat cancer, you got kidnapped by an Atlantean princess. It doesn’t matter if one of them is true or real, it just matters that it’s a good story or not.
Here’s another example I’ve used a bunch of times before
(and will continue to use again)—Vesna Vulovic. You remember her, right? The flight attendant back in the ‘70s whose flight got bombed by terrorists so she fellsix miles
to Earth. And survived
. Not in the powderized bones/being fed through an IV sense—she walked—I repeat, WALKED
—out of the hospital barely ten weeks after they found her, and lived into her sixties.
I mean, that story’s so amazing, look how many times I had to use italics.
The point is, though, what would happen if I tried to have this happen to one of my characters? It honestly doesn’t matter if it’s true, that it actually happened… does it? When it happens to Yakko, my readers are naturally going to call foul (“foul” if I’m lucky). That’s just ridiculous. Yakko got caught in an exploding plane and fell six miles… and survived? That’s just nonsense. I’m writing nonsense at that point. Why not just put him in an old fridge and have him flung a mile or two through the air? That’s actually less ridiculous.
Y’see, Timmy, reality is a messy thing. All of it. The people, the way they talk, what happens to them. And I don’t want my writing to be messy. I want it to be clean and polished and perfect. To paraphrase Mr. Twain, the difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. When I’m a writer I’m the God of my world, and if something doesn’t serve a greater purpose… well, I’m a really bad god.
And probably not much of a writer.
Even when I’m making it real.
Next time I’d like to talk about… well, look, it’s not really important who they are, okay? We’re just going to talk about them.
Until then, go write.