Truth in fiction

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal includes an interesting article by Alexander McCall Smith on the relationship between readers of books and the characters in the books. Readers know that “it’s just a story,” but they still care about the characters as people, and want them to have the opportunities they should. On the other hand, fictional wrongdoers had better get what’s coming to them, at least most of the time.

I remember crying at the end of a book I read as a girl, when the book ended with a death. It was the death of an animal, not a human, but that animal had played a major role in the story and it hurt to see him die. I have often spent time, after reading a well-written book, trying to imagine the next events in the lives of the characters. I don’t recall objecting to the way an  author has portrayed a particular character, but I am sometimes bothered that a particular issue is not resolved for a character by the end of the book.

I have long hoped to write a novel myself someday. I don’t know if it will ever happen, and one reason is that I don’t know that I have the ability to create believable characters. On the one hand, characters need to be reasonably consistent, to act “in character.” But real-life humans don’t always act consistently. A mild-mannered person may lose his temper if there is sufficient provocation, and an honest person may cheat if the temptation is great. And a mostly cold, unfeeling person may show signs of tenderness in certain circumstances.

But coming up with that believable mix of traits, virtues, and vices is something that requires a deep understanding of human nature. Not to mention a keen sense of observation of people’s mannerisms, modes of speech, etc. As often as I’m surprised by the things real people around me do and say sometimes, I must not have them figured out very well.

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