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The Real vs. the Unreal

Have you heard?  Rabbits can speak English!  So, by the way, can cats, dogs, foxes, horses, pigs, lions, tigers, snakes, penguins, spiders and more.  That’s not the only strange thing.  Nosy septuagenarian ladies living in tiny English villages can solve murders that baffle the police.  Little clones of Hitler have been raised in ordinary American homes.  Clowns are aliens.  Army nurses time travel.  You wouldn’t believe it, but you do.

In fiction, that is.  Why?  Novels—and stories in other media—posit scenarios that are patently impossible, and yet when we read and watch we abandon our grounding in reality and go along with situations that are unlikely if not ridiculous.  We do so voluntarily.  We do so with pleasure.  We do so because we recognize that there is a reason for twisting reality.  Things in stories are heightened so that we will not miss a story’s point.

At the same time, we place value on fiction’s reflection of reality.  We expect that a novel will capture, in some way, life as it is.  We journey to fictional times and places because they remind us of where we are from.  We relate to fictional people because they seem like us.  We accept all manner of coincidence and outlandish events in stories, yet violently object when characters’ behavior skews wrong or our moral sensibilities are offended.

In short, we want stories to transport us beyond the normal yet also cause us to agree, or at least be persuaded by a story’s people, behavior and outcomes.  All stories are to some degree unreal; all stories are to some degree authentic.  All stories must somehow achieve a balance between the magic of the unreal and the assurance of authenticity—but how?

The Authority of Realism

Must all stories heighten human experience in some way?  Isn’t it worthy to simply hold a mirror to ourselves and see what is actually there?

Literary Realism arose in the Nineteenth Century as a reaction to Romanticism, influenced by a new faith in science and awareness of social conditions particularly the depredations of the Industrial Revolution.  The social critique and frank earthiness of Madam Bovary and The Rise of Silas Lapham shocked readers of their times yet ultimately achieved a prestige that persists to this day.  From Mark Twain to Martin Amis, the realistic depiction of ordinary life is granted esteem and accrues an authority that more heightened stories struggle to match.

But is “realistic” fiction genuinely real?  Stories of working-class conditions, proletariat struggle, regional singularity, and kitchen sink banality have their place yet documentary texture cannot by itself produce drama.  For that, cowardly soldiers must seek bullet wounds to cure their shame.  Unwitting bond traders must become icons of racial oppression.  Black twin sisters must diverge into two different worlds.

In other words, in “ordinary” worlds characters who capture us tend to be different, do extraordinary things, or have experiences that go beyond the everyday.

There hardly could be a more ordinary world than that of Keiko Furukura, protagonist of Sayaka Murata’s novel Convenience Store Woman (2016).  Keiko has worked in a convenience store, or konbini, for eighteen years, where her speech, dress and behavior are prescribed by a corporate manual.  Her work and life are the height of banal servility yet the author herself works at convenience store and does not see Keiko as oppressed.

In fact, in spite of her life of conformity Keiko sees herself as “different”, and she is as is evident from an episode in her early childhood:

There was the time when I was in nursery school, for example, when I saw a dead bird in the park.  It was small, a pretty blue, and must have been someone’s pet.  It lay there with its neck twisted and its eyes closed, and the other children were all standing around it crying.  One girl started to ask: “What should we—”  But before she could finish I snatched it up and ran over to the bench where my mother was chatting with the other mothers.

“What’s up, Keiko?  Oh!  A little bird…where did it come from I wonder?” she said gently, stroking my hair.  “The poor thing.  Shall we make a grave for it?”

“Let’s eat it!” I said.

Wait…what?  The point is that Keiko may seem a bland sheep on the outside but on the inside, she has a sense of herself as unlike anyone else.  As the novel unfolds, Keiko avoids problems she might have by not conforming to social expectations by co-habiting with a man named Shiraha, who is similarly non-conforming, fitfully employed and living on the fringe.  Keiko dutifully quits her job but her plan to appear ordinary leaves her unhappy and unfulfilled.  In the end, she decides that her true place is working at a konbini, where she can be herself.

Keiko’s is not the destiny most of us would choose, or that would make most of us happy, but for her it liberating and not ironically so.  Keiko—and the author—has a defiant point to make and enacts it through Keiko’s course of action.  The force of Murata’s story thus comes not from a faithful depiction of menial employment, or a tragic denouement, but from its heroine’s challenging definition of fulfillment.  Ordinary Keiko’s world may be, but in claiming her happiness in her own way she becomes triumphant.

The Power of Heightening

Meanwhile, it is also abundantly clear that a strong story point can be made by altering reality in one significant way.  Single-sex societies, for instance, automatically throw gender issues into high relief, as has been done by Charlotte Perkins (Herland, 1915), Sherri S. Tepper (The Gate to Women’s Country, 1975), Marge Piercy (Woman on the Edge of Time, 1976), Susie McKee Charnas (Motherlines, 1978), and—arguably—Naomi Alderman (The Power, 2016).  Male-only societies are less often portrayed—go figure—but have cropped up in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Ethan of Athos (1986) and Aliya Whiteley’s The Beauty (2014).

Science fiction, fantasy and alternate history have always trucked in altered realities, but the heightening effect can also be found in magical realism and many other types of putatively realistic stories.  When detectives have singular abilities or handicaps, romance forces unusual twists into relationships, thrillers pose unlikely dangers or conspiracies, or women’s fiction turns on secrets, separations or wounds beyond the normal, then what is familiar is magnified and elevated.  Think The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Me Without You, The Rule of Four, or The Husband’s Secret.

Over-the-top characters can also heighten a story.  Think Olive Kitteridge, Amy Dunne (Gone Girl), A Man Called Ove, or just about any character in Game of Thrones.  Extreme settings can heighten as well.  Think The Dry, The Marsh King’s Daughter, Where the Crawdad’s Sing.

Really, any exaggerated element in a novel will have the effect of lifting the story to a different plane of meaning.  The trick is to counter-balance what is unreal with things—whether characters or domestic situations or daily routine—that are perfectly ordinary and instantly relatable.

Canadian author Simon St. James writes novels creepy, ghostly, mysterious, occult, suspenseful and award-winning.  You would think she would have no need to worry about realism when her stories are so inherently heightened; however, like horror writers from Wilkie Collins to Shirley Jackson to Stephen King, she knows that to convince readers that the supernatural is real one must first convince readers that the story world is, actually, hardly different than ours.

Set in London in 1925, St. James’s 2015 novel The Other Side of Midnight concerns a former medium, Ellie Winter, who now only finds lost objects by psychic means, but is drawn into the mystery of a murdered rival medium, Gloria Sutter.  Now, you may be wondering how a young woman gets into the business of channeling the dead.  Well, Ellie’s is a pretty ordinary explanation which, after a few chapters setting things up, Ellie gives us in unsentimental fashion:

My mother had been a spirit medium before I was born.  She’d been orphaned by age twenty, her parents of artistic vagabond stock, and she’d set up shop doing séances and performing spirit writing.  It had been a better way to earn money than char work, she told me, as long as you were careful about it.  And she had been good.  Very, very good.

My father, a young postal clerk from a good family, had met her in a pastry shop and fallen in love with her.  He didn’t care what she did for a living.  It was only after they’d married and settled in the house in St. John’s Wood that my mother bought the beaded dress, had the sign painted for the window, and began business as The Fantastique.  She stopped doing group séances, which had a taste of seediness to them, and replaced them with discreet one-on-one consultations.  It was her stab at respectability, at trying to appease the neighborhood for my father’s sake without giving up her work.  I learned from my earliest years to be quiet when mama was working.

Yep, not so different from my childhood, or perhaps yours.  We’re all told to hush.  Mom and Dad toiled at humble professions, getting by.  Perfectly ordinary.  Humdrum.  Middle class.  Just like anyone, right?

In other words, when stories have extraordinary or heightened elements, what prepares us to suspend our disbelief are not the extraordinary elements per se—we know they’re phony—but the very ordinary details of human existence that tell us that what’s happening in the unreal world is happening to people just like us.

Using the Real and the Unreal

Okay, let’s make this practical.  In manuscripts, depending on their values and intentions, stories tend to lean heavily on what is speculative or what is documentary.  It’s as if a dazzling idea will sweep us away, or what is relatable will capture us like a bear trap.  Neither is true.

As we’ve seen, in either case the technique is counter-balance: making real people extraordinary or making extraordinary circumstances feel perfectly real.  Here are some fundamental questions to point the way to that balance:

Inflate.  Deflate.  Heighten.  Humble.  Do those seem like contradictory directives?  Actually, they are flip sides of the same story principle.  Whether the basis for your story is real or unreal, the trick in selling it to us is to employ the opposite.  As readers, we want to be transported yet grounded, swept away while at the same time—in another sense—we never leave home.

What’s the primary mode of story WIP?  How are you heightening or humbling?  What are your favorite examples in the novels of others?


About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].