One of the hardest things I’ve had to grasp as a writer is how things that occur in real life sound unreal if you try to put them in a book. My life is a series of awkward missteps and Threes-Company-worthy misunderstandings, yet many of those—sometimes the ones I think will make the best stories—don’t translate in fiction.
For example, one time when I was young and still dating, I mistook an obscene phone caller for my ex-boyfriend. Worse yet, I labored under this delusion for a week until I confronted my ex-boyfriend who explained to me that it had not been him on the phone. If you wrote this into a story, it would seem totally fake. I, the heroine, would be dubbed “too stupid to live” because how on earth could someone hear heavy breathing and infer that the person on the other end of the line was the dude she broke up with six months earlier?
Well, the reason is because in life, crazy things happen. People misunderstand each other in ways so intense it’s like they’re not even speaking the same language. In fiction, though, your book is supposed to be cohesive. Even though we may be writing in deep third person, it’s understood that the author is always the narrator.
Take characters who say off-color things. In real life, good people make crass or tasteless jokes all the time. Hopefully, it’s rare, but I’m sure some of us know the sweet and cuddly brother or husband or uncle or grandpa who we love to death but who every once in a while makes us cringe.
That guy needs to be way toned down to sound right in your book. Real people are complex; characters, however, are simple. If you write romance, like I do, the goofy uncle or brother or father-in-law is going to be a side character, without a lot of room for detail. They can have foibles, they can even make mistakes, but they can’t be exactly like Grandpa Earl who drove little old ladies to church but also liked to terrorize the kids by threatening to kill the dog. In real life, this person exists. In fiction? Not so much.
The worst is when you write a setting or a character who is based on a real place or person. Hooyah, you won’t want to change your story even if your betas, your editors, and even your readers complain. I know I’m going to get blasted for my upcoming book, Nothing But Smoke, because my character’s Catholic mother is too religious.
Nicky’s mom in Nothing But Smoke is the kind of old-school Catholic who likes having statues of saints and angels all over the house and likes to watch mass on TV. I know she comes off like a caricature, but I can’t seem to stop myself because I wrote her based on a member of my family who was very important to me.
I can still picture the little, cherubic, hand-painted angels I got as gifts as a kid, and remember how terrified I was of the statue of St. Peter, especially once he lost his right hand in an accident involving my brothers roughhousing. Best, I remember a statue of the Virgin Mary with little doors that opened that I got as a teenager. When you closed the doors the whole thing looked disturbingly phallic.
You can’t write a dildo-shaped Virgin Mary statue into a novel. Or boys playing football with St. Peter’s head. You can’t write things that are simultaneously hypocritical and meaningful, holy and profane. Unfortunately, in fiction, you have to make choices and stick to a simple path.
In the end, I’m leaving Nicky’s mom as the person she is—because I knew that person in all her complexity. Maybe it’s bad writing, but I tried to do justice to a personality who was more than just the sum of her parts.
But don’t try this at home, children! Life doesn’t make sense but fiction is supposed to. In fact, that’s why we read fiction. To get the sense that everything falls into place. That funny thing that happened to you that you just can’t wait to put in a book? Don’t. I mean, you can try it, but don’t be surprised if the thing that sounds funny in real life just seems stupid once it’s committed to the page.
The trick in writing is to make sense of things. Stuff happens, people fall, but it all comes together in the end. If only life were that simple!
Daisy Harris is a retired party girl and science fiction enthusiast who spends most of her time writing sexy romance and plotting the fall of Western civilization. She is the author of multiple gay romance novels including From the Ashes, After the Rain, and the Men of Holsum College series. Visit Daisy’s website.