Thursday, April 02, 2009

Define "realistic"

In fictional terms, I suspect that realistic, as it applies to characters and events, has little to do with the real world. It's more of a synonym for believable, which a lot of real events and people aren't. In the comment thread for my take on race and stereotyping in writing, I mentioned that I know real people who are way too stereotypical to use as characters; they're real, but that doesn't mean they'd look good on the page.

It also occurred to me that in my early- to mid-twenties, I had a friend who was a living, breathing Marty Stu. He was good-looking, tough, and an expert in everything. He was a computer hacker, an engineer, and an expert combat marksman. He was the most accomplished martial artist his age I've ever met; he was inhumanly fast, and had an inherent gift for fighting (I've met better fighters, but not many, and they're all at least a decade older than him). He was a rock climber, he could fix cars, and I heard he was a good dancer with excellent taste in wine. He could quote huge chunks of the Bible from memory, yet was a complete heathen. Et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam. He was a real person, but as a fictional character he'd be as believable as the movie version of James Bond.

This is one of the biggest challenges I have writing -- making characters who can do extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances, yet still read as real people, not superhero stereotypes. It's one of the reasons I like John Scalzi's Old Man's War so much: John Perry is so completely a hero, yet so completely a normal, everyday guy. I didn't realize how hard it is to hit this balance until I hammered my head against it for a while. And OMW is practically an object lesson in how to do it right.

It's a habit I'm working on breaking in my writing -- the tendency to justify writing that doesn't quite sound right by saying things like, "but I just heard someone talking like that!", or "but I know a guy who can do that!", or "something like this was just on the news!" I know it's bad writing, but it's easier than good writing. :-)

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