Real life doesn’t make sense… but does fiction have to?

When I wrote my first book, ShockWaves, I had a ‘nearly agent’ who I worked with for over a year before our ways parted. One of the complaints she had about my antagonist was she didn’t think that he’d do the things I had written. Never mind that the character in question was a psychopath, he couldn’t do random acts of horror for no other reason that he felt like it: his actions had to make sense.

[bctt tweet=”Tom Clancy said, The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense. ” username=”@suzannawriter”]

I was thinking about this as I wrote my latest story. I wanted to have my hero and heroine kidnapped … but was that too extreme a measure for rivals who ‘simply wanted to win’ at a skating contest? Even if it was the Olympics?

I spent a long time thinking up several less drastic scenarios that my antagonist might take to ensure their success. And then I realized…

…I think I might have developed a complex about making my characters rational.

But real life doesn’t make sense. People behave irrationally…

car on fire photo

Photo by Pitel

Take the (true) story of a woman who set her husband’s car on fire in McDonald’s car park because he wouldn’t buy her a McFlurry.

I’m not suggesting she was a psychopath but what’s logical about that?

I bet my ‘nearly agent’ would have made me take that plot line out.

… and accidents happen because a specific series of events all line up to cause them.

bizarre accident photo

Photo by Korona Lacasse

I can’t imagine what bizarre chain of events could have caused this tractor to end halfway up the tree but you can bet my ‘nearly agent’ wouldn’t have believed them.

Do you think Lemony Snickett had the same trouble when he wrote A Series of Unfortunate Events?

Then there are real life happenings where the odds are so ridiculously small even I don’t believe them.


My sister and I were pregnant at the same time. We both had boys. My little boy was older by two weeks. That’s him with his big sister in the photo. Sadly, he died when he was ten weeks old. At his funeral, his flowers were laid next to someone who had exactly the same name as my sister’s baby. It totally freaked us out.

Can you believe that?

Even thirty years later, I can’t. And I’m pretty sure if I wrote this into a story no-one reading would believe it either.

But does that matter?

After all the odds of winning the lottery  is nearly 1 in 14 million. And being born into a set of identical quadruplets  is 1 in 65 million. But people do win the lottery and there are actually identical quadruplets in the world.

Is my complex about fiction making sense really justified?

Is the kidnap storyline too extreme?

Let me know in the comments below.

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My Random Musings


  1. I’ve always loved the quote by Mark Twain, “Truth is stranger than Fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” But there are so many variations, like you shared one by Tom Clancy, so who even knows who said it first. Point is, I’ve always loved it because it’s such an absurd and interesting truth. In books, we expect things to make sense. But in real life, things happen that don’t make sense or that are 1 in a billion odds do happen, and we simply accept them because it’s real life. But it is different in books. I do expect characters’ actions to make some sense. Maybe because sometimes it just feels like the author was being lazy and didn’t want to come up with an explanation or series of events that made sense, or didn’t want to develop the character well. I don’t think actions necessarily have to be rational, but then it helps if the reader understands why that character is making irrational decisions. Even if the reason is just “that’s who they are,” it becomes more believable if it’s a consistent part of their character at least. So I mean, I do think your complex is justified lol. As for the kidnap plotline, w/o knowing all the details, I couldn’t say. But books are often a little more on the extreme side than real life, and people tend to accept it. And anyway, someone did once break their competitors ankles or something, right? So maybe kidnapping isn’t that out there.

    1. Great argument there, Kristen. I suppose consistency is the key here. So long as a character is consistently irrational it’s OK.
      Ice skating has had it’s share of scandal with Tonya Harding having her competitor beaten up (There’s a film coming out about that next year which looks interesting) and judges being bribed.
      I’m going with the kidnap idea for the time being 🙂

  2. I think fiction should defy the odds. So long as an action seems plausible within the universe of a particular book, whether it ‘makes sense’ or not is another matter. Readers (and agents) must trust their authors a bit more.
    I’m so very sorry about your little boy. He’s the sweetest in that photo. God bless him.

    1. Umm, I like ‘fiction should defy the odds.’ A future classic quote there, Steph 🙂
      That photo is my favourite.

  3. some of my favorite authors, Neil Gaimen comes to mind, write stories that when broken down really are hard to make sense of. Is anything in a James Bond novel realistic? No, but all these years later he’s still going strong #anythinggoes

    1. Oh, James Bond is definitely not realistic. If it had it been written today, do you think agents would have had problems with it?

    1. That’s very true. Although sometimes real life plot holes are a bit too interesting!

      I suppose fiction is all about balance and how far can you push the boundaries before people start to disbelieve.

  4. Very interesting question, and I do believe that “real life is stranger than fiction” is totally true. And you’re right- with those kinda odds, how does some of that stuff even happen? Really makes ya think. And it is fascinating to wonder how many classics or well- regarded works would be rejected today for being non- realistic?

    Frankly I want to know more about the tractor pic lol. But seriously- I bet if someone were to troll sketchy news sites for a week or so, the number of really wacky real life things would be very interesting!

    1. I like the idea of trolling news sites. Will have to try it ha ha.
      I think many classics would be rejected today but then maybe people would have reacted differently to situations than they would now.
      I’m off to troll some news 🙂

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