The recent CrimeFest International Crime Fiction Festival in the UK was a great success. Plenty of big names, for one thing, including Jeffery Deaver, Frederick Forsyth, Lee Child, Simon Kernick and Anders Roslund & Börge Hellström—the latter half of which Swedish crime writing duo I was fortunate enough to be speaking on a panel with.
The subject up for discussion was “It’s Not Really Me: How Close are You to Your Characters?”, something every writer gets asked from time to time, and something I’ve started wondering myself, about the many exciting writers I’ve been reading lately with a view to signing them up to Angry Robot’s new US and UK crime fiction imprint, Exhibit A.
Because it’s tough not to wonder, really, isn’t it? When you read a character with astonishing deductive powers, or one who can beat the hell out of five ninja assassins, or who as well as speaking fifteen different languages is a world-renowned criminal profiler, it’s tempting to think the author might be capable of such miraculous achievements too.
Of course, in reality, this is usually not the case—and just as well, I think, because for one thing, crime writing conventions populated solely by martial arts experts, logicians, and savants would make the bar area a heck of a lot less fun.
And for another, because for every lawyer writing about lawyers like John Grisham, there’s a Harlan Coben writing about murder and conspiracy, even though he used to work in the travel industry.
None of the writers on the CrimeFest panel were ex-military or police, even though all were either thriller or crime procedural novelists. And none seemed to think it affected the work in any detrimental way either.
Instead, what soon came to the forefront was the notion that authenticity often has less to do with an author’s personal experience of what he or she is writing about, and more to do with research and something far less tangible—namely a writer’s ability to know when something just feels right.
I think readers have this instinct, too. Most of us can spot bogus a mile off. And we don’t need to be SOCO’s, SWAT, MI5, SAS, CIA, FBI—or any other kind of acronym!—to do so. We also don’t need everything we read to feel completely real, just real enough for us to buy into it for the duration of the story we’re being told.
It’s all comes down to that oldest bargain of all that takes place between a reader and a writer: suspension of disbelief. Readers want what they’re reading to feel real as well as be entertaining, with neither of these two ingredients of a great story being allowed to overpower the other.
Hard scientific facts never bothered Michael Crichton, any more than undisputed historical facts ever bothered Dan Brown. But that didn’t make the stories being told any less diverting and thrilling for these authors’ legions of fans.
Certainly for me as a reader, writer and editor, it’s character and story I care about the most—with just enough facts sprinkled over the top to stop me from ever openly considering that the people and situations I’m reading about aren’t in actual fact in any way real at all.
Emlyn Rees is the Commissioning Editor of new US and UK crime fiction imprint Exhibit A and a bestselling thriller writer.