I’d like to preface this with a quick disclaimer; I am an amateur writer as a hobby and the below contains much of my personal opinions ;)
Whilst I’ve been rewriting and rewriting my current novel project (dubbed Lost In Masquerade for now), I’ve noticed and evaluated a couple of little rules about story telling and how it differs to real life. One is how real people have inconsistent and hypocritical behaviour, but rarely characters seem to. Another is how in life, shit happens, for no reason, yet in stories everything happens for a reason and it is generally foreshadowed. I’ve been thinking on why this is and have found it boils down to a discussion about two paradigms; story rules, and reality rules. Why aren’t stories written like real life, and what differs when you apply reality’s rules to storytelling? I’ll explore some ideas using myself and my Lost In Masquerade an example, and then I get talking about two book series; J R. R. Marten’s A Song for Ice and Fire, and Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which have both, to my eyes, played with these paradigms with arguable success. (Please be mindful that there are spoilers below, specifically the twist at the end of Marten’s Game of Thrones).
So why aren’t characters as inconsistent, rambling and inconsequential like real people are? It’s good to have realistic characters, right? First, let’s look at real people. With luck/mood/life fluctuations all tugging at even the most constant person, behaviour patterns are going to fluctuate too. I am personally a great ball of ADHD-fuelled unpredictable. People closest to me can never be too sure when I’m gonna spin out and do something random and contrary to character. I rarely do even simple daily tasks twice in the same way. I break systems and bulk at routine. Sometimes I am badly behaved and have to remember my values and experiences and rope myself in. In Lost In Masquerade, a side character, Gabe, is inspired by this chaotic side of me. Through the story, things go over Gabe’s head but at times he’ll show insight that hints he may catch on to more than he’d have people believe. He does things that are ambiguous as to whether it’s on a whim or by design. He throws a temper tantrum over the smallest thing and other times (when he ought to panic) he’s unflappable. He’ll dish out advice and then act contrary. Sometimes he snaps and snarls and sometimes he sings and jokes, and often how he’s acting is not directly relational to the plot and circumstances. (Especially since the story is from another character’s POV, and Gabe has his personal life and circumstances they, and the reader, are not aware of). I’ve worked hard to try and make him a faulted and complex character. However, the success of his character is dependant on how he is framed in the story. The fact I establish Gabe’s inconsistent nature over the course of the story sets up a consistency for the reader. A rule is established; Gabe can’t be predicted. All his antics come to serve a purpose later on when a plot point hinges on another character, Damien, keeping a secret from Gabe for fear of how he will react. This throws Damien into further strife and builds suspense towards the story’s climax. If I hadn’t previously established the rule that Gabe can’t be predicted and Damien revealed Gabe’s unpredictability to be his constraint, it kills suspense. I mean, sure, introducing this new rule throws Damien in strife, but if I can make up a sudden rule now out of the blue, then what is stopping the reader from expecting me to do it again to solve the resulting strife? It tells the reader that Damien isn’t really in danger.
So what would result if I were to apply the rules of real life to my story, come Gabe? I could show him doing all his unpredictable quirks without it ever coming to any relevance or purpose, be it a plot point/theme/character development. This is realistic. Real life is like that. We do things that come to nothing all the time. We do things we don’t learn or change from. Existence offers no guarantees. There is often no closure to be had. (Are you depressed yet?) However, let’s be honest: that sucks to think about and I’m not going to want to do it any more than I have to, especially not in my spare time when reading (but hey, I have nothing against masochists!). We don’t usually see stories reflect this nature because humans seek to find meaning. We find the stories in which a character’s efforts have closure and purpose, to be pleasurable in a satisfying and comforting way. Even in the case of a sad ending; if it’s foreshadowed by fitting into the rules established over the story then it can still be pleasurably satisfying (shout out for my masochists). So if I applied the real life rules and took you through a meandering journey of Gabe’s day to day hypocrisies, mistakes and quirks with no evident purpose or conclusion, I’m fairly sure that two things would happen; 1. I’d owe a crazed sweaty kiss to anyone who humoured my existence by reading it to the end because; 2. That would read like one hell of an unsatisfying waste of time. It would barely feel like a story. Even if parts of my story reached a conclusion, then at best a reader might get to the end and think ‘what were all those parts with Gabe about?’. At worst, they might stop attaching to all other characters along the way and not pay attention to events that actually do have relevance. Or, you know, stop reading entirely.
There are two book series I can think of that play with the story vs reality paradigms, and speaking personally, lost me as a reader. The first is George R. R. Martin’s A Song for Ice and Fire Series. The first book, Game of Thrones, sets up a very clever and unexpected twist by appearing to follow all the conventional rules of story telling right up until the climax. Martin knows we expect certain things from a story from experience of reading other stories. He lets us believe this will be no different; he sets up rules of what the reader can expect and follows them. You get to know the protagonist, become aware of his struggles, his hopes for the future, and see him learn secrets that ensure he has to survive no matter what, because they have to reach their conclusion, andthat’s just how stories go.The climax is intense; our protagonist is about to die and you’re waiting for some last minute rescue, because we’re on a holiday to story land. Lol soz though; he actually does die. That’s it. Every hope and dream and effort comes to nothing. It changes the game’s rules entirely. We are in the real world bitches, didn’t anyone tell you? The reader is left devastated, and personally I was whispering ‘It’s ok, there will be a reason for this later’ because I was still subconsciously waiting for satisfaction. From that point onwards, you know that no one is safe. It’s tingly-exciting and oh so suspenseful to read… for a while. You’re still waiting for your reward for being a good, faithful reader. (Stockholm syndrome anyone?) By half way through the third book, I was mentally exhausted. No one was getting anywhere. Bad things kept happening. I had read on hoping something would turn around or be resolved but I wasn’t getting any closure. I stopped attaching to any new characters introduced because experience told me they were probably going to suffer/die anyway. Eventually all the characters I loved were out of the game or too far gone to make a come back and I couldn’t be bothered with the new players. It was like real life but way nastier and with the option to ‘stop living it’ by closing the book, so I did. I know a lot of people love this series and have stuck with it, but I have noticed that even the TV series is trying to set up a few more ‘rewards’ and moments of closure for viewers than the book series has.
My other example is A Series of Unfortunate Events, which alternates between real life rules and story rules to create a pretty damn unsettling, eerie and unpredictable result. It like real life but it’s so wrong. One keeps reading because, again, you need to see things turn out ok. Eleven books later or something and I was hugging my twelve year old self in the bathtub having an existential crisis and pondering the tale that would colour my view on foster care with a probable disturbing accuracy for years to come. This series actually pushes the real life ‘shit happens’ and ‘no guarantees’ rules of reality so far it dives straight back into fantasy, because it happens so much that it can only be contrived like a story would be. No one has that kind of luck (I need to believe). I guess that is clever but it still feels bad, man.
So does everything I’ve just discussed come to a conclusion? No. How does it feel bitches? Ok, no I was joking, c-come back! You can reflect real human traits such as error, hypocrisy and unpredictability through your characters to make them feel realistic. The trick is about how you frame that in your story. Only do it to make a point (even if the point is to establish that the rules of reality are present in your story and you do it by your characters wasting the reader’s time. Maybe it could be done well, I’m not one to judge). You can also do it to fuel the plot, but foreshadow too so your reader understands that it is all part of your master plan and worth their time. (Foreshadowing is a way of stroking the reader’s hair and shhhing them calmly without the headache of an intervention order). Stories do not need to follow the same rules as reality because they can be better. In fact, we, as humans, are pussies and generally like story conventions that set up a satisfying and pleasurable fantasy that fulfils how we want reality to be. That’s not to say you can’t throw in a bit of reality to make a heart crushing and unexpected twist to really ramp up the suspense and excitement. The trick is to balance it so the reader is getting moments of satisfaction, are rewarded for sticking by you, and can therefore remain emotionally invested in your writing.