Yes More Blogs – Guest post The difference between real life and fiction How often have you used the phrase, ‘Real life is stranger than fiction’? There’s a reason for the popularity of this idea – Real life and Fiction inhabit two entirely separate universes, so when they appear to collide it brings you up short. Anyone who writes knows that there’s a big difference between what you write in a story and what happens around you in the real world. Fiction is exactly what it says on the tin: it’s made up (Harlan Coben makes this point in practically every one of his ‘Afterwords’). As such, it shapes the way characters act and the way the world of the story is presented to us. Real life is much more arbitrary. Hence I thought it might be fun to look at some of the ways the world of fiction diverges from the real world. 1. People in real life are inconsistent and varied. They change their minds, do things on a whim, go on spending sprees, decide to stay in and watch television. People in fiction are much more consistent. They tend to work towards one goal and not be distracted. So whatever the plot of the story is, the characters are usually thinking about it all the time. They’re contemplating the antagonist – the person who’s putting up obstacles against them reaching their goal – and worrying about what they should do to defeat her or him. In real life, people have so many calls on their time it’s hard to focus on just one objective – work, shopping, kids, the phone … all get in the way. Or is that just me?
2. Fiction, if it’s any good, has a structure: there’s some kind of ‘beginning’, usually when one or more characters realise something has happened that they have to put right – James Bond has to catch the bad guy; Tom Joad and his family have to travel to California in The Grapes of Wrath in order to live well; Lisbeth Salander has to get her revenge in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Next there’s a struggle while the protagonists work out how to achieve their goals and find out who they really are. Finally the denouement, literally the ‘unknotting’, sorts everything out and puts the world back on an even keel. In real life there’s no structure. We might sometimes have a sense of a ‘beginning’ – a new job, a new place to live, a new friend – but more often than not, routine quickly kicks in and we accommodate to the new situation. There aren’t, usually, any antagonists working against us or a sense that there’s something we can do to put the world back to rights. Life just carries on without resolving satisfactorily. 3. Fiction at its best is cathartic – as Aristotle said, it takes us through the experience of Fear and Pity: we empathize with a character and fear for their fate, so when their story has ended we’ve learned something. In Aristotle’s time the hero or heroine usually perished, so we learned the power of fate, or the gods. These days the protagonist usually survives, so we learn the power of persistence, love, intelligence, police procedure … whatever.
In real life we might learn lessons as we pass through, but it’s usually because we’ve paid attention to our own experience and felt the sorrows or joys ourselves. It’s rare, perhaps, that we observe someone else’s behaviour – or reaction to an event – and take lessons from it: we have to have been there and worn the tee-shirt to really understand and grow. 4. In real life, people are way funnier than characters in fiction. Story characters have got so much work to do in pushing forward the story – even when they’re talking, not acting – that there’s little time left to tell jokes, make puns, take the mickey. In real life, real people are much more fun to be around than fictional characters. Who’d want to spend an afternoon with Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon? Yes he’s bright, but he can’t tell a joke for toffee. In the end, the challenging part of writing fiction is to create the impression of real life – real characters struggling with credible problems against realistic opponents. As someone nearly said, once you’ve learned the ability to fake reality, you’ve cracked the art of fiction