I was going through my list of drafts in my blog roll and found this title but no content. I think there was a specific review or article that inspired this debate, but I can’t remember what it was lol!
Either way, it’s an interesting topic.
Several years ago on a car ride my family and I started listening to “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. I downloaded it from Audible after only a cursory glance at the summary and checking the reviews. So, it wasn’t until several hours into the book that my husband and I both turned to look at each other and asked, “Is this book a true story?”
Why ask that question?
Because it was too unbelievable to be fiction!
Louis Zampirini’s life was quite literally unbelievable in many ways. As history, it’s fascinating and incredible. As fiction, readers would have rolled their eyes at how many dangerous and crazy situations he got into and survived! If you haven’t read the book, please do, you’ll understand so much better what I’m talking about.
So, this question is…where is the line as a fiction author? How do you balance crafting a compelling and engaging story without making it unbelievable? Here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years.
1. Characters lose more often than they win.
Sure, most days in reality are pretty routine, and we all have those days where everything just goes right. Is that interesting to read about? NO. In real life, maybe the boring days and good days are the norm, but the days and weeks we struggle and fail and do stupid things and hurt the people we love are the ones that push us to grow and do better, or maybe to give up and throw our hands in the air. Readers are pulled in by the struggle. They can connect and empathize with lousy days and bruised emotions.
2. There are only so many times you can win or escape.
Be mean to your characters all you want. Kill your darlings, right? However, if the end to every situation is a predictable close call or last second escape, readers will not only be annoyed they’ll lose interest. Have you ever watched Tim Allen in “Galaxy Quest”? They parodied this concept beautifully when the alien ship built to model the TV series spaceship is designed to stop its self-destruct sequence at 1 second because “that’s what always happened on the show.” It’s funny because we all now how irritating that “last second” save becomes after a while. While there are rare stories, like Zamperini’s, where people really do beat all the odds and survive the worst situations, most people fail and miss chances and get hurt.
3. Going through traumatic experiences have lasting effects.
Louis Zamperini survived an incredible amount of danger and horribleness in his life, BUT there were deep scars left behind because of what he suffered. The last third of the book that deals with the aftermath of being tortured in a Japanese prison camp is very, very hard to listen to because the lasting damage is so real. I’ve read to many novels (especially YA) where the main character has some tragic past or experiences something truly awful…and bounces back like it was nothing. This is not one of those areas where reality needs to be downplayed. Let your characters be as broken as they need to be. Emotional scars are something we all understand. Characters need that element of reality to ring true with readers.
4. Romance has more leeway, use it.
Most people are fairly rational, even when it comes to relationships. Love can conquer all in movies and romance novels, but real people often give up on difficult relationships and choose not to take risks. Now, I’m not saying all romantic stories have to be 100% HEA, “Enchanted” style storylines. What I am saying is that in romance readers expect a little more of a break from reality. Let your characters make rash decisions or fall too hard too fast. It’s okay if their choices wouldn’t be completely rational or logical in real life. A lot of romance readers want the escapism, the fantasy. Don’t go overboard, but bend reality a little when it enhances the love story.
Balancing fiction and reality is tough, because the line between captivating and irritating a reader can be thin. Stretch reality when it enhances the story, not when you want an easy way out of a situation.