Let's face it. Sometimes, compared to life, fiction is ridiculous. This can be especially true in genre fiction, in which stories frequently follow particular rules and require that certain key events take place in a certain order. In this article we'll review some of fiction's absurdities. We'll also consider why they are tolerated, welcomed, or even demanded.
Romances tend to follow a well-established pattern. A couple of lovers -- they could be straight, gay, or even of different species as sometimes happens in science fiction -- are attracted to each other but something prevents them from becoming a couple. After some eye-popping trials, tribulations, and possibly some misunderstandings so major that one wonders if the pair belongs together, the lovers finally unite.
Despite their follies, romance may be the least far-fetched among genre literature. After all, romances occur all the time, and sometimes people do create crazy situations. Besides, even when the situations are pushed to make them a little more extreme for fiction, the feelings that the characters are experiencing can be very similar to those endured by real people. It is not asking so much of the reader to travel beyond the usual boundaries of the experiences of most people in order to enjoy the ups, downs and butterflies of romance fiction.
Detective Stories provide entertaining puzzles meant to challenge those who like to figure things out, yet often they require those very readers to check some of their most logical gray cells at the title page. In real life, crimes are usually committed by the most likely people, but in fiction the perpetrators are often the least likely. This is because the first goal of the puzzle in a detective story is to entertain by making it a challenge to solve; if the murderer is the most likely person, then the story no longer holds interest. Perhaps the best real-world argument is that a murderer really does not want to be caught, so he covers his guilty tracks.
Another device common to detective stories is that often the protagonist never tells anyone else his or her suspicions regarding the murderer. This an action which proves to be unwise and often puts the protagonist in danger. As the protagonist is supposed to be smart -- after all, he or she is solving crimes -- this lack of precaution seems rather strange. This can lead to another trope: the protagonist is captured by the murderer, who then confesses. Generally the murderer is about to kill another -- the protagonist -- and is apparently using this moment to get this information of his chest.
Even though these types of events may happen in real life, in fiction they happen all the time. This is because they are almost necessary for the story. Detective stories need the puzzle and the suspense to be pushed along as far as possible, with nearly everything being resolved at once. Other sequences of events might be more realistic, but are not nearly as satisfying. And so writers are challenged to come up with different and -- hopefully -- credible ways to manage them.
Thrillers are, as they promise, full of danger and adventure and hair-raising escapes, especially for the hero. Others may die, through less inventive and more reliable methods, but frequently the villain attempts to kill the hero in such a way that somehow he gets away at the very last moment. In more rational moments, one wonders why the villain -- if he is the mastermind that he is supposed to be -- doesn't simply shoot the hero and be done with it?
On the other hand, the audience -- whether they are reading a book or are watching a film -- have come for exactly these thrills: danger and harrowing escapes. They expect the writers to provide them.
Science Fiction is often filled with items and conveniences that completely defy science. On the other hand, some of the ideas developed in science fiction have actually inspired real scientists.
Fantasy should be a genre beyond criticism, because by its nature, anything can happen. Nevertheless, even by the "rules" of fantasy, some bits can be absurd. How many times do characters die and then get resurrected, in one form or another?
There are good reasons for the death-plus-resurrection trope. The death of a character can evoke strong emotions in readers, which is often a goal of the story. Furthermore, some deaths, especially of mentor figures, are useful for increasing the sense of jeopardy experienced by the hero. This also gives the hero the chance to become more self-reliant.
However, the plot may require additional information from the mentor, which may lead to a partial resurrection of the mentor (such as how Dumbledore talks out of his portrait in Harry Potter). Another reason for returning the mentor to the story is to give the readers a happy ending (an example is the return of a more powerful Gandalf in "The Lord of the Rings").
Books in a Series may be less absurd when each book is viewed alone. However, when you observe them as a whole, they often contain credibility-straining elements. For discussion purposes, let's consider a few famous detective series.
Murder mysteries are extremely popular, but audiences may occasionally wonder just how many times a particular individual can get involved in them. Now, being involved in murders is quite understandable for series in which members of the police force in are the protagonists, as in the New Mexico-based novels by Tony Hillerman or those set in Venice written by Donna Leon. It can even be excused for those who are hired by the police, such as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot. But the amateur sleuths Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher are involved with so many murders that one has to wonder if they might somehow be causing them. Never, ever invite either of these ladies to dinner -- these women are bad luck! The same principle can apply to some other types of series: just how many adventures can a single individual endure?
In some series, characters never age. When I was little (a long time ago) I read all the Nancy Drews. Besides wondering why the girls weren't going to college while the boys were (Nancy Drew finally started attending college in 1995) I wondered how she could be involved in so many incidents without aging.
Even when you plan to age your characters naturally, you can still encounter problems. Agatha Christie began writing about Hercule Poirot in 1920, at which point she made him a retired policeman from Belgium. It was rather awkward to be still writing about him in 1975; how long was the man supposed to live? Miss Marple was an elderly spinster when she appeared in a short story by Christie in 1926; Christie's last Miss Marple novel was published in 1971. Christie had no idea that these detectives would prove so popular or that her career would last so long. What is an author to do when the audience wants more? Stop writing? That's bad for the bank account and does not satisfy the audience. Keep the stories set in the past? This is also not as satisfying to the audience, which may want a contemporary story. I think we can all understand why Christie continued to write and just moved her characters along with time, hoping that readers would not be too particular about lining up the math and the passing years.
Perhaps I'm poking too many holes in the soufflé of escapist literature. After all, escapism may be full of hot air, but it can be both enjoyable and artistic. I have certainly enjoyed my fair share of it.
If these absurdities bother you a great deal, you shouldn't attempt to deal with them in your own writing; instead, seek fictional situations where you can respect your own work. If these absurdities bother you a little, that may actually be a bonus. The niggling may spur you to be creative and come up with interesting and different solutions.
On the other hand, life is sometimes absurd, so perhaps we should not mind absurdity in our fiction. Next time, we'll consider some ways in which fiction -- in my opinion -- makes more sense than real life.
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Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at
Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such
publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her
hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring
mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or
contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.
Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.