Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Healthy Level of Insanity

Okay, loyal readers, you've read our individual views of genre. It's a complex topic and as you've seen, even the Peas have similar yet differing opinions. Every writer will have his/her own view of genre and, indeed, of fiction as a whole. However, one issue that fiction often presents garners a nearly unanimous agreement: Fiction, regardless of genre, must be believable in the eyes of the reader. There's just one tiny problem with that statement. Fiction, by its very definition, isn't real. How can you make something that is wholly unbelievable seem believable? It's a paradox that drives authors insane. Fortunately, it's a healthy level of insanity so (for the most part) the Straightjacket Brigade stays far, far away.

Thomas C. Foster, in How to Read Novels Like a Professor, says this about the Un/Believable Fiction Paradox (a label I totally just made up on the spot here):
"...the essential artifice of the novel [is that i]t is a made-up work about made-up people in a made-up place. All of which is very real. We are asked to believe in and treat as potentially real a space that is manifestly imaginary." 
Think about it for a moment. Have you ever read a book set in a contemporary time/place that seems far-fetched even for a novel? Maybe the author failed to explain a crucial piece of world building, such as why a person suddenly takes on the appearance of a disco ball after joining ranks of the undead?* Writers, even science fiction and fantasy authors, constantly walk a tightrope between what is believable and what will cause a reader to stop reading. This tightrope is best summed up in the Law of Bogus Locales, as again stated by Foster: "Places in a work of fiction are never real but must behave as if real."

Essentially, the Law of Bogus Locales means that any real-world, identifiable locale in a novel is a fictionalized version of itself. A small Washington state town isn't the real town. Cincinnati, Ohio is a shadow of the real city. The same is true for St. Louis, Louisville, New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, London, Tokyo, and any other place that can be located on a map or through a Google search. The version you read in a book exists only in the author's imagination. But...there's still that annoying bit about believability. Someone familiar with the area around Grand Central Terminal in New York will know there's a restaurant called Pershing Square tucked beneath the Park Avenue Viaduct and that the Chrysler Building is to the left when exiting Grand Central on 42nd Street. If a writer places the Chrysler Building to the right, a reader who knows that area may stop reading. To have any reader stop reading your book before the end is a death knell for a writer. These are the issues that drive authors crazy, give us nightmares, keep up us awake at night, and force us to double--triple--check every fact before we send a book to the publisher. And even then we worry.

So what do we do? Well...we cheat. We're kids with Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs; we build and we destroy. We add our own bits of flair. We fiddle with geography to suit our needs. We leave out certain information and trust our readers to fill in the gaps. Yes, we still get called out from time to time by readers who want to know why we did/didn't mention X, Y, or Z. The answers vary from author to author, but the main reason usually falls along the line of "X, Y, or Z didn't fit with the story I wanted to tell so I added/deleted it."

The truth I'm trying to convey here is that all writers suffer from some level of insanity, but it's a healthy level of insanity. We chose to walk the tightrope. We accepted the challenge issued by the Un/Believable Fiction Paradox. We do it because we love the thrill. We do it because we can't not do it.

Until next time...

Peas out.

* This is in no way a slam or slight against such an author. Merely a well-known example used to illustrate a point.

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