Feel of Fact

“The imagination is in love with the feel of fact.” – John Bayley *

In high school, I had an eccentric English teacher who often spoke in contradictory terms and used circular logic. She had this analogy for explaining paradox that goes like this. Pretend two ideas are socks. When you role them up, the pair is something else, no longer individual socks. The phrase “pair-of-socks” was somehow supposed to help us remember the meaning of the term. In the end, she confused the hell out of me, and, paradoxically, limited my understanding of the term. Really, explaining a paradox is simple: it’s the contradiction that reveals a larger truth.

If only my HS English teacher had used this video to explain paradox, then even my slower classmates might have gotten it.

Fiction is a paradox; it is the lie that must feel like a truth. Whether we write contemporary, realistic fiction, high fantasy, science fiction, or historical romance, we are all inviting readers into a world we create, hoping they believe in the truth of the story. The moment a character behaves illogically, the moment our world doesn’t make sense, belief starts to crumble and readers lose interest. As much as we want to be swept up in a story, we also demand that it feel real.

Characters

For our characters to feel real, they must have quirks and habits, but be more than just the sum of their idiosyncrasies. Readers need to understand the motivation for their actions. They must have a believable backstory. This doesn’t mean you have to spell it all out. Less is more (another paradox!) It’s okay to use stereotypes sometimes—they exist for a reason— but often they are most effect if they include a reversal of expectations. If as we get to know a character, they are revealed to be layered and multidimensional, that they were first introduced as a stereotype can actually increase their power.

Plot

In the news, it’s the bizarre and inexplicable that grabs headlines (or something that is so self-evident as to seem un-newsworthy, but some people love having their expectations confirmed). In fiction, we expect things to make sense. Nothing throws me out of a story more quickly than a easy-out plot trick. Characters need to work for their goal. The conflict must be logical, not contrived. And this is my biggest pet peeve, particularly in a certain kind of YA novel—characters should have a reason for falling in love.

Sometimes I find it absurd that I offer writing advice—me, an unpublished aspiring author with no formal creative writing training. Perhaps this is the paradox that we must all start from: “I know that I know nothing at all.” Socrates had a point there, and once we acknowledge that, real discovery can begin. This is the only knowledge I have of fiction: that it must feel true.

*I’ve seen this quote attributed to John Bayley two places. The New Yorker and The Guardian.

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