Thursday, January 24, 2013

Stranger Than Fiction

There’s great excitement here in Maryland because the Baltimore Ravens are headed for the Superbowl. John Harbaugh, Ravens coach, is the brother of Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers coach (their father was also a football coach). Their teams will clash at the Superbowl in New Orleans.

You couldn’t make up this scenario. It’s too much of a melodramatic coincidence. It’s believable enough that both brothers would choose coaching as a career, given their family history. But to end up leading rival teams in the biggest game of the year? What editor would allow that to happen in a novel?

Of course, farfetched coincidences do happen in real life. (As I read somewhere just recently, that’s why we have the word “coincidence.”) When I started dating my husband, he lived on a street with the same name as a surname in my close family. Who would put that in a book?

Most people know about the list of similarities between Lincoln and Kennedy, two assassinated Presidents elected 100 years apart, including the especially striking fact that both had vice presidents named Johnson. In a novel, that phenomenon couldn’t be pure chance; it would have to carry some occult significance (as some people believe it actually does).

Ever notice that in novels two major characters hardly ever have the same first name? In fact, writing instruction manuals advise against it, for obvious reasons. Yet in everyday life it’s not at all unusual for two or more people in the same group, such as a classroom or office, to have the same name. In our office we once had three women named Betty working there at the same time. Another time, we had four Joans. (One of them agreed to be called by her last name to mitigate the confusion.)

It’s often been said that just because something really happened doesn’t mean a writer can credibly fit it into a story. Fiction, unlike life, has to make sense. As Mark Twain said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.”

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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