Three (Friendly) Complaints from a Fiction Writer to Readers

tl;dr version: fiction and non-fiction are two separate things.

I think often of this line attribute to Mark Twain:

The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible.

An alternate version that I have seen is, “Truth is stranger than fiction and why shouldn’t it be, fiction has to make sense.” Whatever the exact line, Twain alludes to the responsibility a writer bears to develop continuity within a contrived work. If something outlandish happened, the audience would rebel in their waning interest and reject the work.

It still occurs in fiction, with generally lazy devices like deus ex machina.

Contrariwise, reality can be any number of ridiculous things. Could one imagine if I wrote a story about an embezzler stealing funds from clients and naming that character Madoff? What if I wrote a story about students at an Ivy League institution attempting to carry out a Satanic Black Mass with the blessing of the university’s president: Faust. Yep, both true stories. They read like terrible fiction.

Still, as a yet-unpublished author I have the great joy of experiencing works written by others and being something of an amateur cinephile enjoying the works of screenwriters and directors. As a member of the audience, I hear fellow audience members level complaints against their stories that upset my literary mind.

Today, as a fellow audience member, I want to mention a few of those broad complaints and discuss why they are valid in some situations but inaccurate in many others.

“That would never happen.”

First, in the world of fiction none of the events happened. They may parallel real events or even take place alongside them, but the events of the fiction itself are precisely that – fiction. They speak to something universal in us, something about the human condition, but the writer is not providing an historical account of events. The writer is telling a story, composing a narrative that highlights the nebulous of the human condition in a way that we understand.

A picture is worth a thousand words and we understand how a relatively short piece of musical composition can evoke the most complicated feelings – strong fiction does the same. The events detailed go beyond the obvious to describe something intangible about life, to reveal something to our understanding.

This is not to suggest that a writer is not bound by some degree of reasonableness. When a high fantasy story establishes an internal logic for how its magic works, the writer cannot then violate those rules to move the story along.

Brilliant meta examples appear in the MCU films. We have Thor’s hammer, specifically when Stark and Rogers debate the internal logic of Mjolnir’s power in Age of Ultron. Put Mjolnir in an elevator and the elevator will go up – does not make the elevator worthy of ruling Asgard. Then in Endgame the team debates time travel, citing multiple other fiction works and prompting Banner to exclaim, “It’s time travel. Either everything is a joke or nothing is,” and Lang to say, “Back to the Future was bullshit?”

The bottom line: do not assess fictional works by non-fictional standards. It’s not a documentary.

“Ugh, that character is so one dimensional.”

We have all experienced a story where the characters bore us to tears. Perhaps the author took a stock character or trope and then did nothing to develop it further, perhaps losing sight that the clarity of the character in their mind did not translate to paper. Some writers explore vast back stories for their characters in notes whose details do not reach the final work, so it’s conceivable they overlooked that readers are unaware of things that are obvious to the writer.

That said, some audience members have this tendency to rebel against any character deemed one-dimensional or underdeveloped.

It goes back to the prior point about it being a work of fiction. A (good) writer shows the reader only what is important to the story or, contrariwise, establishes that something should be present and then omits it to the same effect. It’s the same principle applied to stage and screen: Chekov’s gun. No prop or character or line or action in the scene that does not serve a purpose.

While we love to entertain the depth of our imagined worlds, to treat them as though they exist as places we could visit and that all of the inhabitants are therefore real people with independent lives, they are not. In fiction, some characters exist with the solitary purpose of serving the story or serving another character. Nothing else about that character matters.

Thus it might occur that a character exists whose sole purpose is to foil another, to exist with a narrow scope and personality meant only to amplify or juxtapose something about a situation or another character. Could the author flesh out their character more? Yes, but that is unnecessary to the story and therefore a distraction.

As Stephen King notes:

In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.

If additional depth about a character is not necessary to the story, why waste time providing it? As the reader, feel free to pad out the details of that character’s life if you wish. If there is something important about the character, so important that I as the writer do not want you deciding for yourself, I will provide it as important in the prose.

“______ is the hero.”

Every story contains a protagonist, but not every story requires a hero. The protagonist moves the story along, advocating for the premise of the story. The antagonist is an opposing force in the story. Sometimes that takes the form (albeit boring in my opinion) of good versus evil with a heroic protagonist and a villainous antagonist.

The protagonist can be a villain though, and that does not mean that the author promotes the villain’s actions as heroic. The story has a theme and the villain exists in the best position to move that story along. Remember, as good writers do, that most villains in any story see their actions as the right thing. Few characters in history promote themselves as the villain.

This also relates to the matter of narrator and author. Yes, the author wrote the work and the narrator of the story may be third person omniscient – that does not mean that the author is narrating the story. While not necessarily present as an ‘actor’ in the tale, the narrator is a character and may contain a distinct voice from the author. This choice does not occur lightly to an author and readers should take care to examine, “Who is telling me this story?” and then, “Why that person?”

Perhaps the author has a reason why the narrator must be distinct from the other characters in the story (having one of them tell the story is less effectual), but it also makes little sense for the author to narrate the story themselves.

Some readers (viewers) attribute attitudes of the narrator to the author (director), and that is not necessarily accurate. The author (director) conveys a story; that person exists in the real world with you. The story has a premise and themes conveyed through fiction and everything within that story, including the narrator, is a fiction working towards that end.

A narrator with interesting or objectionable views is no more necessarily a reflection of the writer than the inclusion of a despicable villain. The voice must be whatever serves the story.

There we have it – a few brief points about making sure to evaluate fiction in an appropriate context.

The stories exist to entertain and readers of course have their opinion. Perhaps as a reader of a particular piece one appreciates the artistic composition but has a strong, visceral opposition. That is okay. The point is not that some universal standard for evaluating art exists. The point is that writing does require skill, craft, and process like any art, and artistic appreciation requires an understanding of those elements (even if only on an intuitive level).

One cannot compel a reader to enjoy or appreciate a particular artist or piece. As one aspiring author though, I can appeal that anyone with an inadequate sense of artistic appreciation is missing out on a great deal of wonderful work.

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1 Comment

  1. Inspiring analysis and delightful presentation, James! As a largely non-fiction writer who is working on my first novel now, this is delicious food for thought. Thank you for encapsulating some tricky concepts about WRITING fiction as well as reading it, particularly the parts about the narrator, the author, and the effects of voices on the story itself. I will be coming back to this thread for review, I am sure!

    Liked by 1 person

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