Is Fiction a Reflection of Real Life?

Mirrored self-misidentification

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From time to time here I’m going to be writing about things I find most thrilling and most frustrating about writing. I say from time to time because it will have to be as time allows. I’m editing Darkness Follows and working against a tight deadline for my next book and a few other projects. Time is very precious right now.

Okay, let’s start off with a frustration. Here it is: fiction does not reflect real life. In fact, more times than not, if it does it won’t sell. Fiction reflects perceived life.

In fiction we’re constantly told the reader has to care about the characters, root for the protagonist. Characters need to be consistent and there needs to be an arc of development where the protagonist matures or learns something or grows a third ear or something. We’re also told that the resolution needs to be satisfying for the reader, that there can’t be too many loose ends remaining. Loose ends are untidy. I read reviews where critics use words like “implausible,” “unbelievable,” “impossible,” and “laughable.”

Does that sound like real life to you? I don’t know about you but events in my life don’t always have a happy ending and rarely do I get answers to all my questions. I’ve found that real people are mostly inconsistent and unpredictable, even to themselves. We all do things “out of character” and wind up crawling back to the one we hurt or disappointed with apologies to offer. And as for implausible and unbelievable . . . does anything in this world surprise you anymore? Every day I hear about something I would have thought to be impossible or, at best, improbable.

I’d love to write a story that has a tragic ending, where the lead character learns nothing and is doomed to repeat his mistakes over and over again, where there are no tidy answers at the end of the day, and the storyline is totally implausible. A story that reflects real life in all its ugliness and pain. But it would never sell. Especially in the CBA. Even if it had a message of hope hidden behind all the muck and mire.

I’m not stumping for a bookstore full of depressing stories, who would want to read that? I’m only saying that the realism in fiction is more times than not life as it is perceived, not as it is lived. And by they way, I realize there are plenty of happy endings in real life, endings where the guy really does get the girl or the child really is saved from the killer, endings where victims do get answers and there is some kind of resolution. I’m aware of that. Really. In fact, I’ve lived it plenty of times. But is that all our fiction should be about?

So how about it? Do you want fiction that reflects real life, as it is lived in the trenches? Or fiction that shows life as it is perceived?


About mikedellosso

Mike Dellosso is an author of wide-eyed suspense. He writes stories that not only entertain but enlighten.

Posted on October 28, 2010, in Christian Fiction, Writing Life and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. iambelievinggod

    I guess it varies. It is often refreshing when an author’s fiction reflects real life such as at the end of Pretty Woman, we all know the handsome “knight in shining armor” would never have returned for the “lady of the night” but because directors/producers felt like the general public would have wanted a happy ending that is what we got. For an ending to be plausible, however, it needs to reflect life, but that is hard to judge because, like you said, sometimes the guy does get the girl and so forth.

    I want the ending to at least be believable. These ridiculous “oh, it was all just a dream” endings may have worked one time but after that, it’s just laughable.

    So, to sum up, it’s very hard to judge which way to go. At particular periods of my life, I’ve desired to read honest-to-goodness fiction based on life as it is lived rather than how I perceive it to be. I want to see the main character struggle as I do with doubts, fears and failures and find hope even if no true resolution of the issues come to pass.

    Of course, I may be the one in a million that doesn’t have to “have” a happy ending. But it’s nice to know fictional characters can live happily ever after in their imaginary life….


  2. You used some very emotive words for this post, Mike. Implausible being one that jumps out at me as far as fiction is concerned. Lots of things in this life seem implausible to me, but once a person’s character is established in real life or in a novel, there are certain things that remain implausible unless mental illness or trauma intervene.

    “Happy” endings to me are not synonymous with “satisfactory” endings. One gimmick I resent in fiction is when an author uses the first book in a series for the set-up for the next one. Where everything in the story is structured toward the next book. I quit reading an author who did this. Satisfactory endings even in a series can mean that although there are messy circumstances unresolved, there is a sense of reasonable understanding at the finish of the story.

    Tragic endings for me still have to give a sense of hope. Otherwise I’m not interested. The world is filled with hopelessness when hope in the salvation from Jesus Christ is available to all. Safe at Home by Randy Alcorn does the tragic ending with the hope thing evident. It’s so sad, so human, yet so divine. Just my thoughts . . .


  3. Thanks for the responses. I guess for some the question is: Do I want an escape from reality or do I want to to face it? Of course, the reality is that some people, many in fact, do find hope in the midst of tragedy and regardless of the circumstances surface with their faith intact. Also, as an author, I have to ask myself: Do I want my fiction to merely reflect real life or do I want it to rise above real life and teach a lesson or deliver a message or reveal a truth? Questions every writer needs to deal with.


  4. Good thoughts Mike. Everything I read and have been taught about good writing is that it has to be bigger than life. Everything should be exaggerated for dramatic effect. And to a point I agree. A better word to me is “compressed.” A novel, told in the real time of anyone’s life, would be boring. Even Jack Bauer had to go to the bathroom and eat something during those 24 hours.

    Sometimes I think the tragic ending, well told, is a lost art. Charlton Heston was in three of the best tragic ending well told movies I ever saw: El Cid – his dead body strapped to his horse as they Moors flee in fear from Spain; Omega Man (the original I Am Legend); and who can forget his “damn you all to hell” as the camera pans across a sand covered Statue of Liberty.

    I too, wouldn’t want that to be my daily fair. But I wonder what faith-based writer could pull off that kind of story and make it sell? I wonder what publisher would touch it? One key to the aforementioned movies is they all held a seed of hope even in the despair of the ending. In each one, the hope of something new remained after the sting of the tragedy faded.


  5. Deep thinking here today….:)

    Actually, it’s a good thing to consider, and I think I’m sort of middle of the road on this. I dislike reading stories so heavy and dark that I’m exhausted by the last page. Yet, I don’t want something with such a fairy tale ending that it doesn’t ring true. Something kind of in the middle. I want the story to make me think and something to touch my heart and mind.

    The way I figure, we all have all we can take in REAL life of the muck and mire. So when I sit down to read, I want to be entertained. Not necessarily escape mind you, because there should be some solid take away value if the story is told from a Christian world view…but I don’t want more muck and mire either.

    I don’t think a story has to be full of depravity to reflect the muck and mire. A well written story should sell somewhere, and if it is told from a Christian world view, no matter how dark, hope will play a role.


  6. Excellent post, and great follow-up comments! When it comes to the world of Christian fiction, I am an admitted novice. But it seems to me that the core function of a writer to to tell a tale. How we do that and whether or not we are successful at telling a good tale is in the eye of the beholder. Irrational characters, unhappy endings, etc. are only part of the larger canvas. If the writer thinks they fit and the reader agrees, we’ve got success! As a follow-up to Tim’s comment above, I’d submit the Lord of the Rings trilogy for consideration. It is chock full of Christian allegory and in the end, the good guys won, yet Frodo himself failed. If it hadn’t been for Gollum stealing the ring back at the last minute, Frodo would have succumbed to the ring’s dark power. That’s a pretty unhappy ending if you look beyond the surface of the “yea, we won!” fanfare, yet it has a deep-rooted message (beware temptation), if you care to look. So IMHO, fiction isn’t necessarily a reflection of real life. It might or might not be, but the story itself is king.

    BTW – just finished The Hunted – loved it!


  7. Personally, when I read fiction I prefer perceived life. I fail enough in my own life and get plenty of disappointments. When I dive into a novel, I want good to triumph and the protagonist to act in a manner worth emulating. Yes, the character should have flaws, because I can’t identify with a perfect protagonist, but I want to read about the world as it COULD be, not as it IS.


  8. Thanks for the brain food! As a reviewer, I think about this a lot when I go to write my review. I do have to admit that I have a personal affinity to “perceived life” vs. one that is going to remind me of exactly the hardships that I deal with every day and their seeming lack of solution. But at the same time, if those hardships are completely glossed over, wrapped up nicely with a perfect bow, I’m left with two thoughts: 1. that is so fake 2. my life stinks
    Neither of those are a good thing to leave a reader thinking! I tend to agree with Bill and his reference to LOTR. Walking away with a deeper message than just the events in the story is very important. Especially in the “Christian Fiction” arena the main point is that the reader is left with a feeling of hope and trust in the Lord, whether the ending is happy or sad, or a little of both.


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