“They Are Not Real People”

We have an excellent professor at the university whose literature classes are always a hoot. Right now I’m taking one that prepares on writing my Master’s Thesis and almost on every class something he says kickstarts a thought-process that leads to me analyzing myself as an aspiring writer.

Many a class he says how it annoys him that people treat fictional characters as if they were real people. We were reading the Great Gatsby and I almost wanted to ask “why can’t these people just get along”? But then I remembered, again, that what a dumb question that was; I should’ve asked “why doesn’t the writer write them to get along?” This got me thinking about ‘fictionality’ of fiction.

Toni and I, as aspiring authors, are pretty adamant about making our fiction as realistic as possible. Sometimes it makes me wonder; are we nuts? This is fiction; why not write whatever pops into our heads as long as it sort of kind of makes sense? If we want to write “will they-won’t they” couple who’ll fight against their urges to sleep with one another for some vague reasons, why shouldn’t we? If we feel like writing a 50 kg female warrior with no particular super-powers, why couldn’t we? It’s fiction after all, it’s not a factual account of real events! They are not real people!

I’ll tell you why: the writer writes what is fun. Realism is fun to us, probably because it’s often so unfun and we’re twisted that way, who knows, but I’ve always liked a dollop of realism in a story — even if it’s about magic or monsters. If I can help it, the horse-back riding facts have to be right, the gun and fight facts, the scientific details, all squared away to the best of our abilities. And when those material things are done, there’s still the psychological side to the characters — even though they aren’t real people. But we treat them as they were, strive to make them psychologically plausible and labor not to sacrifice that plausibility to make the plot work. If we’re writing two hot single people, they better have plausible reasons not to sleep with one another if the plot is about not making them do it.

Then I’ve noticed some young writers as well as real authors find this obsession really quite, well, stupid (many do give us a slack). They get annoyed when we get nit-picky about their flighty, unrealistic accounts of violence. Female writers throw hissyfits because my female lead can’t fight an experienced man twice her size or if another is blind to the unspoken signals exchanged between a group of males. I’m labelled a chauvinist because I was trying to write realistically – even though they aren’t real people. This isn’t the way we write all our females. But some, yeah.

All this has started to make me think: are we not welcome to the world of literature and real authors because of our “obsession” for realism? Doesn’t that kind of literature have an audience? Or is it limited just to our immediate circle of friends?

Don’t people want to read about real people who aren’t real people? As for some reason I do. We do.

Sincerely,

Katri (the female half of this writing outfit)

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2 thoughts on ““They Are Not Real People”

  1. I have to make my characters into real people. I have to let them react the way they would honestly react. They don’t give me a choice in the matter. And that’s what interests me about them.

    I call my stuff ‘character-driven’ because of this. It’s not about the plot. While there -is- a plot, it’s only there because the characters want to follow it, or because other characters are forcing them to follow it — not because of me. I want to see these interesting people fight it out, seek what they want and defend what they believe in, struggle with their own urges and failings, rise or fall according to their own actions. I don’t want to read about cardboard cutouts going on adventures. I don’t want to read super-protagonists who leap over every obstacle set before them because they’re just so awesome. Sometimes I want to read about someone who jumps at an obstacle, smacks into it face-first, falls down, rolls around in melodramatic agony for a bit, then slinks away to try to find a path around the obstacle. Or who gets chased by the obstacle and ends up hiding in a ditch because he’s a big chicken.

    Yes, I have a particular character in mind for that.

    I don’t want to read a book and go ‘oh, the characters are doing this because the author wants them to’. That takes me out of the story. But I’m well aware that my tastes aren’t everyone’s.

    • The goal is to create an illusion that there’s no puppet master even though there obviously is. At the analysis stage, though, we have to keep in mind they’re not real people, and we shouldn’t ask “why is she doing this” but rather, “why did the author write her to do this?” That is, we want good grades 😛 Of course, when we analyze, the illusion disappears and suddenly one can see how deliberate everything really was!

      What you do sounds very sensible. Our stories are character-driven too, the plot tends to stem from their choices. Of course, in a way every plot stems from some character’s choice… But when we start to write, we have characters first, then the plot writes itself around them, around their choices, ambitions, mistakes etc.

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