Phoebe, the protagonist of my story, is on an unpaid leave from the CIA. During this time off, she gets involved in an unlikely adventure, and the way she handles it helps her to decide if the CIA is the right career choice for her. In a beta read, Nancy pointed out that my character could face serious consequences—even prison—merely for making a phone call that wasn’t over a secure channel. Nancy doesn’t work for the CIA (at least, that’s what she says), but she’s in a position to know.
So I sat down and thought about the limits of realism in my story. If Nancy doesn’t believe my premise, will anybody else?
The heart of credibility
My go-to example for credibility is always the film ET. Did I think that alien was real? I sure did. Did I believe those kids got on their bikes and rode into the sky? You bet I did. So can my character make a phone call that doesn’t land her in the clink? What does “credibility” mean in the world of fiction?
Some stories begin with a “what if” situation that would be impossible to believe in real life. What if a small-town waitress with telepathic powers fell in love with a vampire? That’s Dead until Dark by Charlaine Harris. What if a home-loving hobbit goes on a quest to find the treasure guarded by a dragon? Try The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkein.
Even novels that seem grounded in reality, or that are based on true stories, have a “what-if” scenario. What if an early, slave-owning president of the United States fell in love with a slave? Read the excellent Sally Hemings, by Barbara Chase-Riboud. What happens in the nineteenth century when an expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness seeks a pardon for a woman convicted of murdering her employer and his housekeeper and mistress? Find out in Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood.
Reality and fantasy
Remember the first rule of fiction: the story has to be better than real life. But the corollary is equally important: whatever you make up has to be true at its core.
If I said I lived in a small town, had telepathic powers, and was in love with a vampire, you’d doubt about my sanity. If I said I saw an alien and kids riding their bikes across the sky, you’d have me certified. But if you picked up Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series or watched ET, you’d accept those actions and characters, because they’re real to the story. They follow the rules of the story’s universe.
So what about my character who’s on leave from the CIA, who should not under any circumstances make a call that’s not on a secure channel? For now, because Nancy warned me about its danger, Phoebe’s best friend warns her not to make that call. Phoebe calls anyway. Among other things, making that call demonstrates her unfitness for the job. Will readers believe that? Would that choice fit the story universe? I’ll find out after the next revision pass and beta read. I’m hoping Nancy will give me a reality check.