Recently I took an online class for writers on serial killers. One of the instructor’s goals in this course was to educate authors on the psychological realities of serial killers and the criminal justice professionals to promote accuracy in their portrayals. I can see how fictional accounts could annoy someone in the know. I get that way when I hear people waxing poetic about Krispy Kreme donuts – As someone who has worked in the donut “biz”- it’s my professional opinion that their whole philosophy is wrong. But that’s a subject for a different blog.
I had submitted the scenario I’m currently working on to the instructor, to see if it was “flawed” per her comments. She responded that she didn’t want to get into analyzing characters but… then she had some comments for me that gave me serious pause about my characters and their motivations vis-à-vis reality. Which is why I took the class in the first place – to get her expert insight.
So then I made a squinchy face and despaired for a moment over how adopting her suggestions would impact my current plot. Admittedly I am not an expert on serial killers and she certainly is. This resulted in another squinchy face and considerable grumbling. Then I had an epiphany. I didn’t have to make any changes at all. It’s fiction after all. Intellectually I know that you can choose whether or not to adopt the recommendations of a critiquer but emotionally when someone tells me that my stuff is “wrong” I feel compelled to fix it. It’s a character flaw I have. Hello, my name is Gretchen and I’m a “fixer”.
That got me wondering, what exactly is the responsibility of the author to represent characters realistically in fiction?
My initial thoughts were that it is necessary for the characters to be minimally plausible. If they aren’t, the book is subject to wall banging and that can’t be good. So I asked a few authors I’m acquainted with to see what they thought their responsibility was to portray reality in fiction.
When I asked the question “Exactly what does creative license entitle you to do?” here’s what I found.
Fiction is a little bit like magic. We use “slight of hand” in an attempt to fashion characters that are believable, interesting, and that readers can identify with. In the case of serial killers, or certain other “villains” this is particularly difficult. Most real life fiends are motivated by emotions and a chemical makeup that the “non-fiend” never experiences. The average reader just does not have the biology to understand or relate to how the worst criminals think and justify their actions. So in an attempt to align our characters with our reader’s experience in a way they can appreciate, we take liberties with their behavior, motivations and goals.
The downside is that you run the risk of alienating those people who do have experience with the type of villain or victim in real life. I think it takes a really skilled author to pull off something that reflects real life and isn’t a boring rehash of historical events or clinical facts. It may be easier and more plausible to grossly exaggerate reality beyond the experience of the typical reader. For example, I never heard anyone say Stephen King’s villain in his novel Misery, was too over the top. Readers loved it. Probably his experience in light of his celebrity made that character all too plausible to him. I can imagine that William Shatner would have had much the same reaction to King’s book given the legendary enthusiasm of Star Trek fans. If the author believes in the character’s villainy and has the skills to tell the tale, the reader is likely to accept the premise. Even if the characters color way outside the lines of reality.
As authors we also have to contend with issues of creativity and originality. In order for our work to not be derivative it is sometimes necessary for us to take a walk on the wild side and use ideas that dangle from the edge of a cliff in order to surprise the reader. To give that element of suspense we take risks with our characters and have them do things that are unexpected, original. How can an author do that if not by treading the fine line between creating characters with actions that are outside the norm of everyday experience, while using motivations that remain relatable to our readers, or ourselves?
Everyone I asked seemed to agree that there are limits to creative license. Characters need to be plausible, believable, and have motivations that the reader can at least accept. Certainly that is the “happy path” to publication (notice I didn’t say easy). To that end most writers do at least some research into the topics they address in their fiction. Their efforts honor the subject matter. Much like the author writing about a character who was an adult survivor of child sexual abuse. Her concern with “getting it right” showed a sincere appreciation of the problem and a forthright attempt to avoid demeaning the victims of abuse while telling a compelling story. The story is not about survivors of sexual abuse, it’s about vampires, human beings, werewolves, or other humanoid creatures and what makes them tick. The sexual abuse thread was simply one facet, much like the case of the adult survivor in the real world. The sexual abuse does not define them. It is a single aspect of their character. Fortunately, I’m not terribly worried about insulting serial killers, though who knows, maybe I should be? Let’s hope not.
There are those among us who take another kind of risk by choosing not to exhaustively research. They may focus their stories on other elements using the un-researched aspects as an underlying theme rather than loading their prose with potentially implausible details. They concentrate the reader’s attention on the emotional impact of the interaction between the main characters and de-emphasize particular events that put the characters in peril.
That same writer might produce such lively and outrageous stories that the reader is distracted from being critical of the details. Whether it’s likely that a character would sit still long enough to be killed in a particular manner is inconsequential if the other details around the murder are so flamboyant as to deflect doubt about the character’s actions. Does anyone question the likelihood that that another of Stephanie Plums cars has exploded? As a reader I was surprised and delighted but never questioned it when she loaded a pack of monkeys in one of Ranger’s SUV’s. Of course she did. When Claire fell through the stones in Outlander no one cared if the laws of physics supported the premise of her journey. They were focused on the character’s problem of being a modern woman in an 18th century world. That slight of hand takes considerable skill to achieve, and the willingness of the reader to accept the illusion.
So to answer the question, yes, you can pretty much count on being ticketed for reckless driving when using creative license. But that shouldn’t keep you parked at the curb. Risk is part of the business of writing fiction. Exactly how much risk are you able to tolerate and how well you execute the maneuver will determine your success. Regardless, writing will always fall under the category of – you can’t please all of the people all of the time – no matter how carefully you steer between the orange barrels.