Lately, I’ve been thinking on and off about how my reading and writing preferences have evolved over time.
I will happily admit that I like reading—and writing—because I enjoy escaping reality. Even if the book I choose to read is realistic fiction, I like imagining a different type of life or experience, seeing how other characters deal with situations similar to or completely different from my own. Speculative fiction is a more obvious escape hatch, allowing me to explore alien worlds and creatures.
But there are limits to the suspension of my disbelief, to how much escape I like in my escapism, if that makes sense. I still need there to be rules to the universe—and I don’t necessarily mean physics. The story has to stick to the rules of the world that’s been introduced. Fantasy stories have rules about magic; science fiction has rules about technology; realistic fiction has to adhere to at least some laws of reality. In many ways, the foundational aspects of a particular genre have to be more believable than real life because the reader will have to suspend their disbelief for myriad other elements.
As I’ve gotten older, there is one universal truth I’ve come to expect no matter the setting: everyone’s lives have ups and downs. Some people’s lows are lower than others, and some highs higher. But I’ve never met a person, or heard of one, whose life is ONLY peaks or ONLY valleys. Just saying or thinking it seems absurd. Some of the highs or lows are our own invention, just obstacles in our minds, but that doesn’t make them any less real.
So I find that in the stories I read and write, I need that universal truth to be present. I lose interest in a story of any genre if the main character is constantly having bad things happen without even the tiniest turn of good fortune. But I also find reading about a character leading a completely charmed life equally unbelievable (unless, of course, that charmed or cursed life is part of a larger commentary or aspect of the story somehow).
I’ll admit these were not always my proclivities. When I was a teenager, I only wanted to read angst; the harder a character’s life, the better. I had no interest in reading about happiness during my high school and most of my college years. I think because at the time I was learning how to handle my own emotions, and they all seemed overwhelming, especially the negative ones. The only release and help I could find was to read and write about characters going through incredible turmoil.
And that’s what we all use reading and writing for to some degree, I think: learning to work through issues in our own lives (whether current or past problems). Sometimes we do it consciously: we seek out books that cover problems similar to the ones we’re facing, or we set out to write a story that deals with those problems. Sometimes it’s completely subconscious (especially, I find, when it comes to writing). I did it when I was younger; I do it now; I imagine I will continue for as long as I’m alive. I have no problem with escapism.
But I have a certain threshold or degree of escapism that I can tolerate—I need some realism in my escapism. Not in the setting, but in the characters’ experiences. Beyond my threshold, the stories I’m writing become too personal or the ones I’m reading too off-putting. If a book I’m reading ends up being all sunshine and rainbows (or doom and gloom), I begin to wonder what was so terrible/wonderful in the author’s own life that they needed such a blatant escape. I end up trying to read more into that than into the characters and the story, and that’s not generally what the writer—or the reader—wants.
I will say this doesn’t happen often, undoubtedly thanks to great editors who help writers strike a good balance between a strong plot and some much-needed and appropriate escapism. A great pace to a story, and how much time lapses from the start to the conclusion, can all affect how believable it is. And this is just one more aspect to consider as a writer. In my opinion the problem of believable escapism is best solved in editing, where it can be easier to fix when you can clearly see the tale’s topography. A terrible situation that is resolved for better or worse too quickly will be as unbelievable as a charmed life falling to pieces in a heartbeat or never faltering.
Like most aspects of writing and reading, you can’t please everyone. Some people have a much higher or lower threshold for escapism than I do. Luckily, there are enough books in the world to meet anyone’s requirements for escape—and if for some reason you CAN’T find one that satisfies your needs, you can always write it yourself.