Monday, May 25, 2009

Is it realistic?

Resumed work today. More on that another time. I just had a flash of insight that I prefer to write about.

Realism and what readers will accept . . . I know this has been theorized a million different ways, (e.g. the willing suspension of disbelief), so I know this is not a new insight. It's a case of suddenly "getting it." I suddenly got this feeling that I don't have to worry so much about if the reader will believe certain scenes. I think I can count on the reader traveling a certain distance to me.

Now I'm not talking about stories that are in any way fantastic--sci-fi, magical realism, even farce and satire, which delight through deliberate exaggeration. I'm talking about cases of "realism" in fiction, which I think applies to my story. The characters are supposed to feel as human and recognizable as possible. It's supposed to a dramatic, but plausible, circumstances unfolding in a realistic way in a realistic setting. (Of course, if it's a dramatic narrative, it is already genuinely UNrealistic but disguised as realism. Narrative has cause and effect relationships and resolutions, and life almost never does.)

So, in every episode of the story, I'm constantly worrying about how real it seems. Will the reader stop believing it? Will they think, "That could never happen. I would never do that. No one would ever do that . . ."? A lot of the process is weeding out plot gimmicks and making sure that the actions the characters take arise out of who they are and making sure that I've established who they are to begin with.

One hard part about this is that minor characters are, on the one hand, often the levers of plot complications and, on the other hand, less developed characters by definition.

Anyway, I was just looking at one scene where a minor character does something kind of outrageous and socially inappropriate that causes a lot of trouble, and part of me all along has been half-consciously worried about if anyone would believe this. (Interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, this is one of the few actual events from real life that still survives in the book.) And I was looking at it--on the copy used by one of my readers--I saw it through the reader's eyes and it suddenly occurred to me what should be obvious . . . that it probably doesn't matter if it is unrealistic. Readers want to go along on a ride. They want extraordinary and outrageous things to happen. They want them to work so they get that delightful sensation of believing the unbelievable, but they want it. That's one of the reasons they're reading. They want to go along, so they'll come along. If you hook them at the beginning, the reader will probably tolerate a lot more than I have imagined while I stressed over these things.

And I think that's probably true of realism as much as sci-fi or anything else fantastic. I'm not talking about characters suddenly being swept up to heaven while they're hanging the sheets out to dry. In this case it's more like a character acting in public as if he has no shame. I would never do it. Most people wouldn't do it. A reader may think they can't imagine a real person ever doing it. But I think most readers are willing to read about such a thing and believe it anyway.

Lesson learned: I'm going to try and relax more about these things and generally trust the reader more.

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