When it comes to stories, everybody knows that when you say, “That character’s not believable,” it’s a bad thing. You hear it in school. You hear it in workshop groups. You hear it when people talk about what they’re reading. This intense preoccupation with everything–even fiction– being extremely believable is human nature. In Aristotle’s Poetics, the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory, Aristotle talks about how mimesis in narratives creates an emotional connections between the writer and the audience:
The instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.
In other words, people connect to what they know. Fiction, then, becomes a balancing act: get as close to the truth as possible without telling the truth.
I thought about this paradox when I read Isabel Allende’s latest novel, Maya’s Notebook, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was fascinated by the story of Maya Vidal, a teenager who gets involved with drugs, runs away, gets caught up with a group of criminals and addicts, then is saved by her adoring, spunky grandmother and whisked off to Chiloé, a rural island in Chilé. It’s a fantastically entertaining book, but the eerie thing about it is that for all the darkness it takes on (counterfeit money rings, drugs, racism, rape, police corruption, alcoholism, death), it’s filled with an overarching sense of serenity and joy. Maya overcomes her addictions more easily than a person might in real life; her grandmother is a little too adept at out-smarting the police, considering she doesn’t have any practice as a criminal and all her knowledge is theoretical; the romance between Maya and the dreamy American guy visiting Chiloé, Daniel, is a little too perfect.
I loved all these unbelievable things, even though they were unbelievable. Because they were unbelievable. Mary Pols says on her review of Maya’s Notebook on NPR:
I myself was not scared by Maya’s story, mostly because I didn’t believe a word of it… Maya may be a lively character, but she never feels remotely real.
I didn’t believe Maya’s character, either. Her voice didn’t sound like a teenager’s voice to me and she seemed to get through her struggles a little too calmly. But unlike Pols, I didn’t feel like that was a bad thing. It was what made Maya’s Notebook what it was– a magical kind of story where all the characters pass through troubles with grace and skill.
One of the most unbelievable moments for me was when Nini, Maya’s grandmother, and her partner, Mike O’Kelly, who both learned about crime through their involvement with a guild of crime writers, steal piles of counterfeit cash from a storage locker with Maya’s help and get rid of it by burning it in the middle of the Mojave desert; Nini secretly saves the printing plates, and it’s never implied that she’ll get in trouble for possessing them. Nothing about that is believable. At the same time, I want to believe it all so much, since it’s such a dramatic, defiant moment. I’m happy to believe it. It was some really fictiony fiction, and it was really good.
I often find myself trying to get closer and closer to accuracy and truth in fiction, but when I’m focused on that, I feel like I sometimes lose sight of the fun part of fiction: the fictiony part of fiction. The part that is completely unconcerned with reality. That part of writing is important, of course, but the wild abandon of reality is equally important. The liberating thing about fiction is that it can go anywhere and do anything, as long as you let it. There’s a real joy in the process of letting go.