Writing Real Life, Not the TV Version
"We were the first human beings who would never see anything for the first time. We stare at the wonders of the world, dull-eyed, underwhelmed. Mona Lisa, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building. Jungle animals on attack, ancient icebergs collapsing, volcanoes erupting. I can't recall a single amazing thing I have seen firsthand that I didn't immediately reference to a movie or TV show... I don't know that we are actually human at this point, those of us who grew up with TV and movies and now the Internet. If we are betrayed, we know the words to say; when a loved one dies, we know the words to say. If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass or the fool, we know the words to say. We are all working from the same dog-eared script."
-Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
Performing good research is the backbone of any writing project, no matter the genre. But for those of us who write fiction, particularly those of us in the Spec Fic realm, our research is usually indirect. We read articles, we watch documentaries or other works of fiction about our chosen subject. We do our legwork, we write our scene, then we present our draft to our writing group, hoping to be lauded not only for our prose but also for how real it seems. But what exactly is real?
I remember two different times I received very strong (almost aggressive) pushback on the realness of my writing. The first involved Isabella, the protagonist of my current writing project. In one of her early scenes, she is punched in the face—the eye specifically—by a man.
After reading the scene, one of my reviewers asked, “Why do you say she has blood coming out of her nose? He didn’t hit her in the nose.”
“Oh, that happens sometimes,” I assured her. “If you’re hit in the face, sometimes the fragile blood vessels in your nose can burst, even if you weren’t hit in the nose.” She looked at me with an expression between disdain and disbelief, so I proceeded with what I thought would be the deal-closer. “I know because it happened to me. The EMT who treated me called it sympathy bleeding.”
Despite my assurance of the medical reality of a bloodied yet unstruck nose, she was unpersuaded.“Yeah, but it still seems like bullshit. I recommend changing it.”
The other incident got far uglier. In a piece of flash fiction, my first-person narrator mechanically recounts the activities of her day. Reading between the lines, we understand that the previous night she had been raped by her coworker. To be honest, it wasn’t my best work. As loquacious as I am, Flash fiction isn’t my strong suit. But the way my narrator behaved was lifted straight from a friend of mine from my military days. She was attacked on a Sunday evening. And Monday morning she was at work, her uniform starched and pressed, quietly and casually ignoring the coworker who had raped her. It was real. I just wrote it down.
But a classmate in my fiction class bristled at my piece. “This isn’t real. Victims don’t act like this. I know what PTSD looks like, and this isn’t it.”
I explained that this girl doesn’t see herself as a victim. I even pointed out the parts of the text that signal her state of mind to the reader. My instructor seemed to agree that my intent was clear. But the classmate persisted.
“Women do not just get over it when they are violated. I think that’s just something rape apologists like to tell themselves.”
It’s possible that her conviction and vitriol came from her own personal experience, but more likely it came from the commonly accepted tropes of what a victim is and how a victim behaves. Deviations from those tropes tend to invite suspicion. We know how innocent people behave and how guilty people behave. Not because we’re cops or lawyers or even keen observers of the human condition.
We know because we’ve seen it on Law and Order… over and over and over again. In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn used this predilection perfectly with her character Nick. To avoid giving spoilers, I’ll just say that one of the reasons he had such a hard time with the cops was that he just didn’t “act innocent.” He acted the way the television audience associates with guilt. As he stated above, we’re all working from the same dog-eared script.
So the question becomes: do you write what is "real?" Or do you write what is real? And how do you do that kind of research without sinking into the aforementioned depression that so plagues the writer population? How do you tell the truth in your writing? And whose truth are you telling?