July 11, 2008
One of your goals as a writer is to bring your stories to life. One of the tell-tale signs of bad writing (a waving red flag, really) is characters that talk, act, or react unnaturally to the world around them. It doesn’t matter if that world is Manhattan, the ancient city of Babylon, or the main bridge of a Space Marine Thunderhawk orbital lander. If readers can’t identify with what a character is saying or feeling, it’s going to distance them from your writing. In some cases, that distance will include them setting down your manuscript, going out to lunch with friends, and completely forgetting it.
For the record—that’s bad.
As writers, the main source we have to draw on is our own lives. We can spend hours doing research in libraries or people-watching from the patio of our favorite Mexican restaurant (El Zarape on Park—it’s fantastic), but in the end it all comes down to things we’ve done and seen. We know how people act because we are people. We’ve all gone to school, hated our boss at work, and been cut off on the freeway. We’ve traveled a bit, kept secrets, and gotten our first kiss from that cute girl (or guy) we like. Well, most of us have, anyway.
However… this is where things tend to get a bit tricky.
People often confuse fiction-real with real-real. Y’see, the thing is, real life—the life you, I, and all the people we know are all living– is actually kind of boring when you get right down to it. I think the average person feels they’re living a pretty good life if they have one or two amazing days a month. And amazing usually just means having a great night at the club, a perfect evening out (or in) with a loved one, or just hanging with your friends while you watch a DVD with pizza and beer.
Very few ninja attacks.
Not that many pirates.
Almost no killer cyborgs from the future.
Not one nymphomaniac Famke-Janssen-look-alike billionaire heiress with amnesia who needs me to follow her to Europe to fend off the Knights Templar while she tries to locate the ancient mystical talisman that will restore her memory and bring about world peace.
(I really had my hopes up for that one…)
The other big problem is one you’ve probably heard of. Truth is stranger than fiction. No, really, it is. Even considering that last little fantasy. The world is a truly bizarre place filled with amazing coincidences and connections. They’re completely ridiculous. Did you know there’s a direct link between the development of the Japanese tea ceremony and the rise of the Freemasons? Honest, there is.
Take Vesna Vulovic. Vesna was a flight attendant on a DC-9 that was bombed in mid-air by terrorists in 1972. She was trapped inside the ruins of the plane’s hull as it plummeted more than six miles to the ground. However, through a near miraculous series of events and conditions, Vesna survived her fall. She fell 33,000 feet, was in the hospital for a mere two months afterwards, and is still alive today, walking, talking, and laughing.
So… does that mean a character should fall six miles and live in your writing? It really happened, so it must be believable, right?
Another great historical example is Grigori Rasputin, sometimes called the Mad Monk. Rasputin had a truly disturbing amount of influence over Alexandra, the wife of Tsar Nicholas II (why he had this influence… well, that’s a topic for the after-hours discussion) and in 1916 a group of Russian nobles decided he needed to be “removed.” But how do you quietly get rid of a man who would be huge by today’s standards (some reports claim he stood almost six and a half feet tall)? As it turned out, they poisoned him, beat him, stabbed him, shot him, beat him some more, smothered him, beat him a third time just to be safe, and then dumped his body in the Neva River.
Final cause of death, when the body washed ashore a few days later?
Another true story, and yet how often have you found yourself scoffing at the film character who ignores knives, bullets, and broken limbs? Or berated the screenwriters when someone survives a three story fall or a major car crash with only a few scrapes?
Here’s another one, a bit simpler and closer to home. I once worked with a guy named Carlos. He was an electrician and a best boy on several television shows and films that I worked on back when I was a prop master. One day at lunch I realized Carlos had the odd habit of putting “bro” at the end of almost every sentence when he spoke in English. At the time I was slogging my way through my first serious attempt at a novel, The Suffering Map, and ended up adopting his habit for one of my characters. When I got requests to send the manuscript to a few agents, I was thrilled. And every copy came back with the same note, worded in a variety of ways.
“The dialogue doesn’t sound real.”
At which point I smacked myself in the forehead, because I’d forgotten this same tip I’d given to dozens and dozens of people…..
Cloverfield is an excellent example of a movie that had flawlessly real reactions and dialogue—dialogue that made you want to smack every one of the main characters into unconciousness. Indie films have almost become a genre unto themselves, where “indie” refers to real stories about real people reacting in real ways to real situations… and boring the hell out of the audience.
Y’see, it doesn’t matter if something is real or not. What matters is that it works and draws in the audience. Books are not real life. Movies are not real life. No, not even if they’re biographies or documentaries. They’re a window, and the thing about windows is that they only offer a limited view, whether you’re looking inside or out. Simple common sense will tell you that you cannot make a window that lets you see everything. There will always be something just out of sight, around the corner, or just too big to see all at once.
A good writer knows just how big to make that window. They know just what they want you looking at. They won’t let you see distracting things. They’ll make sure it’s all fresh and sharp (or old and rotting, depending on what they’re trying to show you). They won’t waste an inch of glass displaying something that isn’t part of the view they want you to see.
Because if you try to make a window big enough to see everything… well, even if it wasn’t impossible, it’s not very structurally sound. Those are the windows that crack in the wind or just shatter under their own weight.
Remember, real life is never the answer.