An ongoing discussion among novelists in general (not just mystery writers) seems to be "How do I make my characters real? How do I make my book realistic?"
These are good questions, but they miss the basic point that genre fiction is not reality. It is an escape from reality and therefore requires an intense suspension of disbelief. The better question, I think, is "How do I make my highly improbable fiction seem only moderately improbable?"
Why is our genre inherently unrealistic? Consider:
- Most of us get up in the morning, go to work, and come home exhausted. We don't have the time, money, or energy to devote to investigating crimes.
- Most of us have never been even remotely connected to a single murder, much less find ourselves involved in murders on an annual basis.
- Most of us do not find the police, the prosecutor, and the FBI and CIA to be willing participants when we decide to stick our noses into their business. And we rarely see things the police have missed, rarely become involved with them romantically and/or physically, and rarely deliver the perpetrator of a foul deed to them (and then only after the perp has confessed to, and perhaps attempted to kill, us).
The list could go on, but you get my point.
For me, "reality" (or an acceptable level of suspension of disbelief) in fiction means a few things:
- Getting basic facts straight--for example, not getting basic details of geography, landmarks, or history wrong. But I personally have no issue with setting a book in a real city (for example, New Orleans) and making up a bunch of street names.
- Making sure characters behave in a way that does not fly in the face of common sense or basic human psychology. I'm totally fine with naive people getting in over their heads (without which, of course, there'd be no Gothic genre), but fiction becomes stupidity when supposedly smart characters do dumb things solely to keep a plot moving. The author has stretched reality too far when I consider a character a presumptive nominee for a Darwin Award.
- Respecting the laws of physics, gravity, the human anatomy, and human limitations. When characters are shot 25 times and keep going, or when a character chases a car on foot and manages to catch it, I have left the world of mystery and moved into science fiction.
And other fictional conventions, while totally unrealistic, don't bother me in the least--they are, in fact, the elements of good escapist fun:
- I don't mind a cast of supporting characters that are almost as or more fun than the protagonist. Nobody on earth has a hilarious mother, brilliant father, best friend who happens to be the chief of police, sister with an eidetic memory, brother who's a drag racing superstar, and college roommate who decided to become a stripper. But this is the type of cast I love spending time with. Much, much more fun than a whiny mother, uncommunicative father, boring sister, TV-addicted brother, and codependent best friend who's obsessed with her children.
- So you've decided to make up your own city, one that resembles San Francisco, or Paris, or New York? By all means, have at it. That's what fiction is--you're allowed to make places up. Interestingly, the unwritten rules imply that you may create your city, but not your own state or country.
- In many books, the characters never get dressed, go grocery shopping, take a shower, spend endless hours watching TV, or paying bills. They're too busy with their unique hobby or profession, such as detecting forgeries in 19th century stamps or finding hints in ancient maps regarding the location of an ancient treasure with infinite value. And that's all to the good. My own life is highly boring--I don't need to see it replicated in a mystery tale.
A writer whom I admire for his ability to combine a completely fictional world with one based on a semblance of reality is Alexander McCall Smith. Now, if we think about this rationally, it is simply impossible that Botswana is that perfect and unspoiled. (To my mind, any place without a lot of air conditioning is imperfect.) Smith does a remarkable job of creating the fictional world of Mma Ramotswe, who's a bit of a Don Quijote character, staking out her claims for the "traditional Botswana ways" amid a changing world. She lives life according to a clearly stated moral code, but she's not perfect (as evidenced by her issues with Mma Makutsi). And Mma Ramotswe's Botswana isn't everyone's Botswana--let's not forget that there is crime there, and spousal abuse (of which Precious herself was a victim), and HIV/AIDS (from which Mma Makutsi's brother died). Plus, Mma Ramotswe is a member of the Botswana upper class, having a very nice inheritance from her late father that allows her to purchase and maintain the house on Zebra Drive. Smith doesn't dwell on any of the harsh realities of Botswanan life, but places them in the background against a fictional foreground of detective work and delightful family life. It's an intoxicating brew because Smith has a unique formula for making it all work.