I’m trying to figure out how truthful fiction should be. I’m half-way through War and Peace on audio. In every poll of famous Western writers, War and Peace comes in first place as the best novel of all time. But it’s not like other novels! It’s much more realistic. All of the characters are such a mix of virtues and failings that it’s hard to admire or dislike any of them. There are no protagonists and no antagonists (other than Napoleon, who is both a genius and a fool). There’s no plot—there’s an over-arching story about the war with Napoleon, but it isn’t a plot, because Tolstoy doesn’t try to make you care about the war. Instead, every character uses the war to pursue their own petty concerns. At no point do you wonder (or care) what’s going to happen next to any of them. Partly this is because they’re slave-holding nobility, each obsessing over their own first-world problems while living lives of luxury supported by the endless forced labor of dozens or hundreds of serfs. Mostly it’s because their problems are usually trivial ones they stupidly created for themselves.
Stupidity is the prime mover for both good and evil. In every battle scene, men are wounded or killed because someone made a stupid decision, or led men on a useless and dangerous mission in order to win glory. No one gets upset because they also endorse stupid values that excuse it—or when they do get upset, it’s because they’re overcome by some competing but equally-stupid meme. Morals are spread by hypocrites and fools, and now and then take root in someone who is foolish enough to listen to them, yet smart enough to do real good. If the book has a theme, it appears to be the futility of reason and the beauty of stupidity.
But I’m not convinced the book has themes. It shows what people are like, and why they do what they do. Possibly as a result, it is boring. It’s fascinating when you step back and look at the big picture. But, paragraph by paragraph, it’s boring. It took me three tries to get through the first two chapters.
Is this a good book? Writers say it is, but they never try to write anything like it themselves.
Do I want to write or read stories that are that truthful? I don’t know.
Chapter 7 of Bickham’s The 38 most common fiction writing mistakes, “Don’t Use Real People in Your Story”, has this to say. (I’ve reworded it to make it shorter, so don’t quote this.)
One of my new writing students, a gent we shall call Wally, came by my office with the first pages of a new story. I read the pages and then handed them back.
“Wally, these characters are dull. They are flat and insipid. They are pasteboard. They have no life, no color, no vivacity.”
Wally looked shocked. “How can these characters be dull? They’re real people – every one of them! I took them right out of real life!”
“Oh”, I said. “So that’s the problem.”
“What?” he said.
“You can never use real people in your story. ”
“For one reason, real people might sue you. But far more to the point, real people – taken straight over and put on the page of a story – are dull. ”
Good fiction characters are never, ever real people. Your character may begin with a real person, but to make him vivid enough for your readers to believe in him, you have to exaggerate tremendously; you have to provide shortcut identifying characteristics that stick out all over him, you have to make him practically a monster – for readers to see even his dimmest outlines.
If your real person is loyal, you will make your character tremendously, almost unbelievably loyal. If he tends to be a bit impatient in real life, your character will fidget, gnash his teeth, drum his fingers, interrupt others, twitch, and practically blow sky high with his outlandishly exaggerated impatience.
Good fiction characters also tend to be more understandable than real-life people. While they’re more mercurial and colorful, they’re also more goal-motivated. In real life, people often act on impulses that grow out of things in their personalities that even they don’t understand. In real life people often don’t make sense. But in fiction, they do.
It’s just one of several ways that fiction surpasses and improves upon life. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it? After all, if fiction were really just like life, why would we have to have it at all?
What need would it meet? Who would care about it?
Maybe Tolstoy is doing this precise thing, so masterfully that it fooled me into finding his characters realistic. But I don’t think so. True, Tolstoy’s characters are more goal-oriented than real people. None of them stay in the same place and the same routine out of inertia, as most real people do. But I think that Bickham would have some harsh words for Tolstoy. War and Peace may have colorful characters—though many are not—but it is boring because it doesn’t pretend that life is made out of heroes and villains, or that even the grandest episodes in history make any sense. It has little emotional impact and no suspense, just like most of life. I think Tolstoy wanted to show the kind of grandness or flavor real life has, not of big things but of little ones, small prides and sacrifices and kindnesses and spites. That’s deep. But it’s hard to read. It isn’t flashy and exaggerated, the way Bickham thinks stories should be. “Who would care about it?” strikes at what’s wrong with War and Peace.
Maybe War and Peace is like a plate of broccoli, good for you but not as appealing as a jar of cookies that will make you fat and stupid. Maybe Tolstoy is right, and that’s just how broccoli must be.
Maybe fiction can never be more than dessert. Does it make any sense to force yourself to read a giant novel because you think it’s good for you, instead of reading a textbook on psychology? I think so. We only really understand and believe things when they come to us in the form of a story.
Or maybe Bickham and Tolstoy are both wrong. Maybe a great chef can make broccoli taste good. Maybe War and Peace is a crippled could-have-been masterpiece, hyper-realistic and loaded with psychological insight, but bloated with boring dinner parties, and full of missed opportunities where Tolstoy described loves and battles but never made it clear why we should care about them. Is there a way to make a book that’s both realistic and exciting?
There’s lots written on “novelistic realism”, but it’s way more boring and pretentious than this, and seems to be about the trappings of realism (dirty dishes and characters who fart) instead of realism about how people and the world work.
Can you name any stories that are as realistic, and aren’t boring? Maybe stories by Chinua Achebe, Yasunari Kawabata, and Jhumpa Lahiri. I don’t know. I’m going to go with Don Quixote for now. The first real novel, and still possibly the best.