How Realistic Should Realistic Fiction Be? by Robyn Bavati
There’s an interesting paradox at play when it comes to fiction vs non-fiction. Writers of non-fiction are told that they should ‘find the story’ within the biography, memoir or autobiography they are writing so that the book becomes as exciting and satisfying as any novel. Writers of fiction, on the other hand, are told to make their stories seem true. In other words, the value of a novel (fantasy and certain other genres aside) is measured by how closely it appears to resemble factual truth, while the value of memoir is determined by how closely it resembles a work of fiction.
Accordingly, some critical readers hold fiction to an almost impossibly high standard of plausibility. By categorising your work as fiction, you’re placing yourself in the position of having to defend the ‘truth’ of your story, though no such standards of plausibility apply to non-fiction, which by definition must be true.
As a reader of realistic fiction, though I draw the line at what is clearly impossible, I am quite happy to go along with the author’s version of events and rarely question it. I want to read stories that are more exciting and inspiring than the mundane, ordinary occurrences I come across daily. I relish the improbable and delight in stories of the path less travelled. So perhaps it’s natural that these are the stories I want to write. I want my stories to do more than just reflect reality. I want to inspire my readers and spin a good yarn.
Unfortunately, not all readers are quite so willing to suspend disbelief and I have been questioned on issues of plausibility. My first novel, Dancing in the Dark, is about a girl who dances without her parents’ knowledge for nearly five years. The entire story hinges on the believability of this basic premise. One of the challenges for me in writing it was making this plausible. How would she get away with it? Where would her parents think she was when she was dancing?
I went to great lengths to ensure plausibility. I gave my protagonist alibis and friends who covered for her. I gave her a couple of narrow escapes, had her caught out in a less heinous transgression, etc.
Even so, a few reviewers and readers (though, interestingly, none within the target readership) said they didn’t believe a girl could deceive her parents for so many years. I asked a couple of them if there was anything I, as a writer, could have done to convince them otherwise. They said that there wasn’t.
Similarly, my second novel, Pirouette, raised issues of believability, as it’s a story about identical twins who change places. A plausible concept? I believe it is, especially given that the twins were adopted at birth by two different families, neither of whom knew they’d adopted a twin. Nevertheless, one of my beta readers questioned it, saying that no parent could be taken in by such a swap, since parents know their children so well. In other words, although I’d accounted for how and why the swap could work within the framework of the story, this reader wasn’t buying it. Like those who refused to believe a girl could keep a secret from her family for nearly five years, this beta reader’s objection was based on her personal belief system rather than on my failure to address the issue.
I’ve learned something from these non-believers: just as you can’t make someone like your novel, you can’t force readers to suspend disbelief.
Still, I’d like to remind them that every day, the media reports events that seem unbelievable. Example 1: A man kidnaps a young girl and keeps her locked up in the garden shed of his suburban home, where he repeatedly abuses her for many years until at last she escapes. Example 2: A bigamist has two different families in different parts of the same city, and neither family is aware of the other’s existence until after his death.
Though both these notorious scenarios defy credibility, both are true. Yet despite the abundance of improbable real-life stories, some readers will always demand a higher standard of plausibility from their fiction, wanting fictional stories to reflect their own particular beliefs, and some of these readers will review your books.
That’s a risk I’ll take, because I like exploring how far my characters will go. I don’t want to limit myself to the likely and the probable. I enjoy pushing the boundaries of plausibility and I know that however far-fetched my plots may seem they are not nearly as improbable as many events that have actually happened.
Most importantly, plausibility does not mean probability. If you’re writing realistic fiction, your stories don’t need to be likely or probable – they just have to be possible. If you’ve addressed the plausibility issues in your novel, you’ve done your job.
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