But I thought that was normal

A fledgling writer has based some fiction on a real incident, or used a semi-autobiographical character, or their own or a friend’s reaction to or behaviour in a particular situation. They share it with their writing group, an online writers’ forum, or a critique-buddy and the response is a resounding no. No, I don’t buy that. No, people just don’t do or say that. No, I’ve never met a character like that in my life. So, do they say thanks for pointing out something that’s not working, or do they admit the truth behind the supposed fiction and let the group realise they’ve just invalidated this writer’s life?

Truth is stranger than fiction often enough, and the events of one outlandish night may well not wash as a story, but I’m not talking about that kind of unique event. I’m talking about the kind of thing that in the writer’s world is everyday or logical, some details they used to make a story more authentic. The kind of thing that, when the reaction is ‘normal people aren’t like that’, can hurt.

I’m not a fledgling writer any more but as I said in January on No Writer Left Behind it took me a while to stop writing middle-class characters speaking BBC English, when I wasn’t in SF mode. I’m still not sure of myself when I write fiction that’s closer to home, not based on people I’ve observed from afar. I still end up believing (sometimes) that everyone (else) in 21st century Britain has a car, a TV, a smartphone and a dishwasher, all women are on the pill, everyone goes on foreign holidays, and they all have a circle of friends they’re in constant touch with and see every week. So I find myself writing characters who fit those expectations, but then every so often I write something that for me seems more real, with a stronger connection to me or my family. The characters are usually some combination of hard up, lonely, anxious, socially inept and are not fitting in.

And I share the story and get responses like this:

  • Nobody does that.
  • Why would anyone think that?
  • I just don’t understand why he’d expect that to happen.
  • But surely he’d just… (this one often involves spending money or owning several of something, i.e. buy another or use the spare)
  • I’ve never met anyone who…
  • Who on earth is that sad/lonely/downtrodden/anxious? It’s over the top, it doesn’t ring true.
  • Why would she still be friends with that person? She’d just turn to her other friends instead.
  • I don’t see why that’s such a big deal.

They range from the trivial (I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, someone from the south-east asking who on earth has a washing line these days, to which I replied: everyone round here) to the deeply-felt and upsetting. A few years ago when The Nephew was a teenager he was seriously ill, and because I’m old-school British (emotionally stunted) I faced the prospect of him dying without my ever having made it clear how much he means to me. I’m not his only aunt, but he is my only nephew and since I have no children he’s basically it as far as my connection to the next generation goes, the only person to pass things on to, whether that’s knowledge or my record collection. Also, he’s a nice lad with good (that is to say, my) musical taste. Thankfully, he pulled through and of course other than buying him more books I haven’t taken any steps towards showing my fondness. However, I did write a story in which a childless poet has one niece (though he’s not her only uncle) who means the world to him and he realises he ought to tell her, if only by writing her a poem and sending it to her. Someone I knew from an online writing community read the story and emailed me with feedback: the poet seemed a bit sad and pathetic, why would he fixate on this niece who doesn’t see him as anything special, what’s so special about the niece? So not only did I think my story had fallen flat, I also felt judged. Perhaps I should add that I can think of plenty of instances in my extended family where the childless have a particular fondness for a niece or nephew (who they may well leave most or all of their belongings to) without necessarily seeing them often, so at home I don’t feel particularly unusual.

Recent questioning of details in a story undergoing critique made me think about all this again, as I stayed silent rather than defending behaviour I see replicated across friends and family, and the rest of the group clearly found odd. As long as a writer is writing their deeply personal story in isolation, it’s fine. Once they share it, it starts to matter who they share it with – if they’re working class and it’s being looked at by a middle class group, if they’re rural and being judged by the urban, or from an immigrant family and no-one who’s reading it is, then you get the possibility of this mismatch and disbelief. Class, upbringing, income or disability can all make a difference and if the writer feels judged or out of step, it’s easy to be discouraged or decide to write about the visible characters, the ones you think everyone’s expecting to read about.

I find it hard to imagine anyone pays four grand for a handbag, or twenty grand for a watch, but I see these items in lifestyle features in The Guardian so I assume the relevant people must exist somewhere. If you never see evidence for particular sets of people you’re not likely to find them plausible in fiction, so I can see (I think) how the ‘no’ happens, but we need to find a way to break the cycle and make the invisible visible, so that the next batch of fledgling writers can look around and say yes, I thought it wasn’t just me.

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8 comments

  1. Truth is almost always stranger than fiction, and people tend to forget that.
    One fun thing that happened to me was that one of my novels takes place in Paris. And readers would comment on how vivid my descriptions were and asked me how much time did I spend there…
    How much? Well… A couple of days. On Google’s Streetview. That was it.
    Then again a lot of critics believe the best literary description of New York was Kafka’s in Amerika. And his only source of inspiration was a black and white photograph of the Statue of Liberty.

    1. Thanks. It’s easy to get put off by an offhand comment, and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it the other way round in the past so hopefully I’ll learn to think before I speak too!

      1. A criticism of ‘that couldn’t happen’ isn’t very accurate. What the person probably means is that you haven’t convinced them within the terms of the story that it could happen. That’s a different thing and something you can work on.

        1. Good point. I suppose that can still come from a gap between their and your expectations of the same character though. Perhaps that they would need more detail, more background about how this person lives because they have no prior knowledge, whereas for the writer it’s enough to mention some circumstance and everything else follows logically (as it would for others with the same prior knowledge as the writer).

          1. Yes, very true! And it’s unfair that there is this kind of literary norm for characters that’s taken for granted.

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