Last week I reviewed Star Gazing by Linda Gillard. I enjoyed the book, but criticised it for having a few too many coincidences. Linda wrote a thought provoking comment in response to the issues I raised and I thought it deserved a discussion of its own.
Here is what she had to say:
I’m really interested in the issue of fictional credibility. As an author I’m constantly trying to produce something that is a contradiction in terms: believable fiction. Or if you prefer, true lies.
We all know truth is far stranger than fiction, yet we apply personal criteria to fiction and drama and measure the worth of something according to whether or not we believe it. When a character does something we don’t believe she would do, we dismiss it as weak writing and very often it is. But who do you know who behaves consistently at all times? If someone behaves out of character, we think they must be unwell, stressed or perhaps using drugs. A response to suicide is very often, “He was the last person you’d expect to do something like that! He was always so cheery.” People behave unbelievably all the time, but in fiction we expect and demand consistency.
What about when authors describe events? What makes something believable? Was it believable that all of those Chilean miners got out alive and unharmed? If that was a movie, wouldn’t we have expected a few of them to die, as they do in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN? And what about Princess Diana’s death in a car crash, in Paris of all places, with her lover? If you gave a novel a climax like that, you’d be criticised for going over the top and tying up ends far too neatly, not to mention melodramatically.
So I’m conscious as a writer that I have to “tone down” reality to make my fiction look credible. I teach writing workshops and rookie writers will sometimes present chunks of raw autobiography as fiction. They’re mortified if I say, “I’m sorry, I just wasn’t convinced.” “But,” they exclaim, “it really happened! Exactly like that!” I have to explain there’s a big difference between something being true and something being credible and when writing fiction, it’s more important to be credible than true.
My favourite example of this is the opening page of GREAT EXPECTATIONS where Pip visits his family’s grave. Dickens apparently based this scene on a real graveyard where 12 little ones from the same family had been buried. Dickens thought this number would strain reader credulity, so for his opening scene he reduced it to seven.
As T S Eliot said, “Humankind cannot stand very much reality.”
Linda presents a convincing argument, but I think I must have a lower tolerance for coincidence than her. With the exception of science fiction/fantasy, where these rules are allowed to be broken, I like my fiction to be as realistic as possible. The problem is that I have no idea why this is the case. I know that strange things happen in the real world all the time, so why am I so averse to reading about them? I’d love some insight into this!
What do you think?
Should truth always be stranger than fiction?
Linda Gillard is the author of three books: A Lifetime Burning, Emotional Geology and Star Gazing.
Visit Linda’s website for more information about her writing.