Once in a creative writing class in college, one of my classmates had submitted a story the rest of us found issue with. The story featured a waiter who was just mind-bogglingly rude, and borderline racist to boot. It felt weirdly out of place and inappropriate, an unusual amount of storytime devoted to this singularly, almost impossibly rude character.
My classmate’s defense was, “Well, this actually happened to me. This is almost verbatim what this one waiter said to me and my friend. This is a true story, in that regard, so if you find it weird, so did we!”
And I remember that my teacher shook his head and said, “Just because a story’s true doesn’t mean it’s good to read. If it doesn’t make sense on the page, then it doesn’t make sense on the page. It might be tough to accept, but nobody who’d going to read this knows or cares about the truth.”
And that line really struck a tone with me. It’s informed a lot of how I think about writing and the way narratives work, because it implies that reality doesn’t have nearly as much to do with fiction as we might often prefer to think. There are rules we expect from fiction, ways that fiction sets us up for certain events, builds us up and prepares us even if we don’t know it’s doing it.
Life isn’t like that at all. Life will blindside you with a car wreck or love or cancer or even just a whole lot of nothing, just years of paralyzing miasma and inactivity. Real life is more than happy to start suddenly sucking without giving you any advance warning at all. Sometimes it will trick you into thinking it’s okay but then one day you realize your life has actually been sucking for the past five years.
So in a way, reality is no excuse for any feature of a piece of fiction, because reality is – I’ll be a pessimist and say it – often unsatisfying. People say they want closure and arcs and definition from fiction, but reality doesn’t give you any of that. It’s arbitrary and obscure to the point that we’ve had to develop numerous schools of philosophy just to deal with its stupid bullshit.
I say this because people often try to use reality to explain away unsatisfying storytelling. I remember during season 2 of The Legend of Korra, I found myself increasingly frustrated by the main character’s refusal to learn or change. She’d been through trials and traumas that tested her character, but she hadn’t seemed to learn anything – she was making the same stupid mistakes.
The common defense was, “She’s 17! Teenagers are like that!” But this is just another version of, “This is a true story! This actually happens in real life!”
To which the justified response is, “So? Who gives a shit?” In this instance, the show had set up arcs that suggested that the main character would learn something. Her behavior indicated that he hadn’t. Just because a normal teenager wouldn’t learn, that doesn’t justify her actions: the rules of the show, in my opinion, prepared us for something that wasn’t delivered on, and reality can’t excuse that. Hell, if we want to hew to the “normal teenager” idea, the teen characters in the show would probably spend way more time acquiring drugs and masturbating.
There’s a big difference between “feeling real” and actually being real. One is way more entertaining to watch than the other. Reality doesn’t immediately disqualify someone’s issues with the story.
This is also why I immensely distrust the “Well, history was really that bad!” reasoning for all the grim atrocities in Game of Thrones. I hear this a lot – I believe this is often GRRM’s favorite reason – but it’s problematic too, because:
1. There’s a lot of history. Like, basically an infinite amount of it. A bunch of good shit happened, too. Don’t pretend you’re not cherrypicking to make your case.
2. Who cares about history? This book has dragons and magic in it. Why are we hiding in reality’s shadows to excuse the story’s grimness?
There are lots of reasons one could use to make the case for GOT’s excesses. Some people insist it’s actually a feminist critique of male fragility – and there’s enough castration, de-manning, and genital mutilation in the story that I’m willing to give that argument at least some rope. But “real life!” isn’t a valid argument. Just like the reader won’t care if this one event totally happened to a friend of yours, they also won’t care if this Babylonian tyrant totally did commit this monstrous atrocity.
Now, I wrote this piece because there was some talk on twitter in defense of whiny female protagonists in Young Adult novels. The common defense is, “Well, you were like that once,” and that defense doesn’t go far with me. The very last thing I would ever want to read about is Robert Jackson Bennett ages 14 through 22 or so. That guy sucks. I know. I was there.
But – and here’s the critical but – the key word is “I.” No, I don’t want to read about whiny protagonists. But I’m not the target audience. These books are likely intended for a human being in different developmental state than I am. They speak a different language and see the world in a different way. We have a lot of differences and almost certainly have a very different set of likes and dislikes.
As such, it’s completely understandable to use “this isn’t meant for you” as a defense. Lots of things aren’t meant for me. My three-year-old son loves Caillou, and that show makes me want to put a gun in my mouth. But I can’t seriously fault it for failing my own narrative standards – it’s not meant for me at all. (This is also why I’m dreadfully unsure if I want to reread Catcher in the Rye, which I absolutely loved as a 14 year old: it might use a language I don’t speak anymore.)
As one final note, there are some stories that hew close to real life specifically to be unsatisfying. Probably the most prominent example is No Country for Old Men, wherein [ENORMOUS SPOILER] the good guy gets in over his head, gets killed, and the bad guy gets away with all the money, though is somewhat hurt in a rather arbitrary car wreck.
This is a deeply unsatisfying story, but I think it’s meant to be. Any Cormac McCarthy story is, to some extent, about the meaninglessness and arbitrariness of life, and how life is indifferent to our own desires for morality. By not giving us what we want and hewing close to reality, the story is very intentionally spitting in our collective faces.
This is a whole ‘nother ball of wax, in my opinion. It’s one thing to be intentionally unsatisfying, and it’s another to try to use reality to explain away something unsatisfying. But on the whole, the very last thing people want in their fiction is more reality. No one actually picks up a book wanting to find real life in the pages. We have to deal with enough of that when we put the book down.