Novelists—as well as screenwriters, playwrights, producers of short stories; in short, writers of all types—often hear that their characters and plots should be realistic. Protagonists and antagonists must, we are told, sound and act like the people we meet on the street. Readers need to understand motivations, experience the story world from the inside, recognize the settings and the characters as something that, if not familiar, is comprehensible.
All of which is true—and yet not true. Because real life is often boring, its meaning obscure. Conversations meander amid a flood of hemming and hawing, slang and trivia; family members retreat behind their cellphones. Random accidents abound: a child leaves the door open, and the dog runs away; a trip to the wrong restaurant causes everyone in the household to fall ill with food poisoning, and as a result the homework doesn’t get finished on time; the power goes out for no apparent reason, interfering with any number of plans.
Fiction can’t afford the luxury of the meaningless event or the repetitive conversation. It needs drive and movement and drama, and above all it needs (most of the time) to make sense. Novels portray daily life, to be sure, but they shouldn’t mimic daily life. The creator of fiction is, by definition, telling a story—with a beginning, a middle, and an end and about characters who (usually) change and grow in ways people often don’t in real life. The story looks like the everyday world and to some extent sounds like it, but it’s real life distilled in a crucible and stripped of its ordinariness, its irrelevancies.
I was forcibly reminded of this point while reading Adrienne Celt’s wonderful Invitation to a Bonfire in preparation for my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview (recorded today, so stay tuned for the exact link sometime after July 4). The book is, as Adrienne Celt admits early on, a homage to the well-known Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov—the author of Lolita, among other works.
Like Nabokov, the lead character, Lev/Leo Orlov, grows up in Russia, leaves the country for Europe to get away from the 1917 revolution, and ends up in the United States. He has a wife named Vera, and in the 1930s he becomes involved in a passionate affair with another woman. Some of the personality traits that characterized Nabokov and his Vera also make their way into the story.
And there the resemblance stops. The real Nabokov reconciled with his wife and died in 1977, after a long and productive life including a fifty-two-year marriage that produced a son. Lev Orlov is not so lucky. We know from the opening page that neither he nor the girl he falls for, Zoya Andropova, will survive the year of their cataclysmic relationship. For a long time, we don’t know why, and we certainly don’t know how, but by the time we reach the end, the whole trajectory is clear. Some characters grow while others don’t, but the dialogue between them and the factors that drive them and the locations where the actions take place are all crystal clear.
Because they have to be. It’s not real life; it’s fiction, and fiction doesn’t have time for loose ends. It has—it must have—a vivid, engrossing story to tell, packed with action and emotion. Otherwise, why would we read it?
Photograph of the Nabokovs' shared burial site in Switzerland by Gorodilova, 2009, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.