Kay: The Reality—or Not—in Fiction

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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.

Now what?

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.




6 thoughts on “Kay: The Reality—or Not—in Fiction

  1. Is Phoebe’s best friend in the spy biz, Kay? In real life there are the rules (sometimes with serious consequences) but there’s also an unwritten understanding that evolves over time among insiders that some rules are unbreakable and some are not (isn’t there a Thing at the moment about Hillary Clinton using her private email account for state-related business?).

    It would be really great to know whether the unsecured phone call is a technicality that is frequently ignored, a full-blooded no-no, or somewhere in between. So the friend can warn and Phoebe says phooey, everyone does it. Or she says I know, and if I finish up in the slammer, will you come visit me? That’s the kind of small-detail, insider-feeling exchange that would really make me believe in Phoebe’s world.

    • Thanks for the thoughts. Being a deeply cynical person myself, I always think people in govt/politics do whatever they want and assume they won’t get caught—and then are all injured dignity when they’re found out. Phoebe’s already in trouble, and she thinks in this case the end justifies that risk. But some people might not buy into that idea.

  2. I know absolutely nothing about the CIA, beyond what you see on TV/films, and am not at all fussed about things being absolutely accurate in stories I read. So, my point of view would be on the spectrum of one extreme, they are discussing nuclear secrets – that would strain credibility if just happily chatting on normal phone; to the other extreme, where they are just talking about her job and career (i.e. CIA internal stuff, not of much interest to anyone else), I wouldn’t even notice what sort of phone they were on. (Plus, also would think it too much detail if you shoved it in, because, unless it’s germane to the plot, I don’t care and dislike it when too much research shows).

    One compromise could be to make sure she uses a landline (even if you don’t say why), because mobiles/cellphones are notoriously unsecure.

  3. (-: This is one reason why I like fantasy and science fiction. If you set the story on planet Thera, and have your girl working for the Agency of Central Investigation, you might be able to get away with more of those things.

    I don’t know if I’d notice about the phones. (-: I notice stuff about the North Koreans, because they are practically in my backyard, and have a history of kidnapping people from Japan to train their spies. So, if you try to control every single little fact, it gets crazy-making. No matter what you write, people are going to say, “Welll . . . .” And not just about things you get wrong — they’ll complain about things you get right, but they think are wrong. (Like the link between North Korea and Scandanavia.)

    I’ve been wrestling lately with the concept of “good enough” fiction. Would it be so bad if I had a cardboard character or two? Or five? (Yes, because my plotting isn’t strong enough to carry the reader through. My strength is unusual juxtapositions. So, I’ve got to make my characters and plotting as strong as I can, because the “unusual juxtapositions” leg of the literary stool is kind of like a vestigial leg — not strong enough to carry a story.)

    But nobody can write the perfect novel. Just where can we cheat, and still give the reader a great read?

    Internal consistency isn’t the place to cheat. I agree with what you say about that so completely. The story must follow the rules of the universe.

    And the thing is, it sounds like the phone-thing actually lends strength to your story — knowing she’d buck the “little” rules clues us all in on where her heart really is. So, that might be a good thing to highlight.

    • So true—no matter what you write, somebody will disagree. My hope is that as few people as possible will be pulled out of my story. And I think “cardboard characters” are the last thing you’d have to worry about!

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