Should fiction writers be bothered about reality?

I am always interested in supporting new writers creating new writing in any form. So it was with enthusiasm that I sat down to watch the BBC’s recent series The Secrets. In general I found them engaging and tackling interesting issues, even if they weren’t faultlessly realised.

However, the episode The Lie gave me much to chew on in a way I am sure the creators did not intend. In the narrative a wife realises that her husband has a second family. To discover more, she makes an appointment to have a session with her rival who happens to be a counsellor. During this session the counsellor behaves unprofessionally and unethically numerous times…. Please miss out the next paragraph if you don’t want to read story spoilers…

Unethical/unprofessional behaviour. (1) The session takes place in the counsellor’s kitchen (2) with door open. (3) During it the errant husband shouts out that he is going out and the counsellor responds. The wife asks if she can use the bathroom and (4) is directed upstairs (toilets should be close or adjoined to the therapy room). Here she takes the opportunity to look in on the nursery where her rival’s baby sleeps. The counsellor discovers her there and (5) goes ballistic (instead of discussing what has happened and finishing the session professionally).

These actions are never explored as examples of what should never happen, they are merely devices to allow the wife to confirm her fears that her husband has a second family. When I wrote a comment to this effect on the BBC programme blog, I received a response from a fellow viewer which basically said writers are allowed to do what they want in terms of embroidering reality/artistic licence in order to move the plot forward.

I’m not sure whether I agree with that. As writers we are already asking readers to come with us into our imaginary landscape, accepting the reality we present while knowing that it is a creation of ours. We make a contract with our audience, and the degree of reality guaranteed in that ‘contract’ obviously depends on the genre we are writing in. The premise for The Secrets was that these were gritty, realistic portrayals of human dilemmas. So to suddenly depart from realism just to get something to happen in the plot, I believe, is breaking the contract with the audience. I think it also shows laziness on the part of the author. I’d be interested in knowing what other writers think.

4 thoughts on “Should fiction writers be bothered about reality?

  1. ann harrison

    ”To suddenly depart from realism just to get something to happen in the plot’ does show laziness, plus a low regard for viewers mentality. More than one person surely is involved in writing these programs. Passing before more than one pair of eyes before someone in authority puts a stamp on the script. Writers are not allowed to ‘do what they want. Artistic licence has a border line, I think. Unless you are writing slapstick/ science fiction or such like. Would the researcher/ writer for said program like to reply.?

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  2. Julie Fairweather

    I’d like to add my thoughts on this post and hope you will not take offence where there is none intended. I am, after all, one of your biggest fans, Kate.

    I didn’t actually see the program but would like to comment on a personal level about ‘home therapy sessions’. I know of a newly-qualified counsellor, who shall remain nameless, who attempted to set up a counselling practice from her home. When her first client turned out to be quite unstable, began running around the house screaming and displaying threatening behaviour, she quickly changed her mind about her home therapy idea.

    The incident I refer to happened in the 1970s, so if the program was depicting that era, the events you describe could be construed as being somewhat true. They may not have had adequate training guidelines and registration systems for qualified counsellors that are in place today. However, If the program was set in a more modern era, maybe we should not be so naive as to think that ALL professional people ALWAYS behave in a professional and ethical manner. Wouldn’t that be a form of typecasting?

    I am commenting without having seen the programme so could have got this completely out of context though my view of professionals would remain the same.

    Just a thought or two.

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    1. kateevans2013 Post author

      Thank you for your thoughts. Of course I am not offended, why should I be? But my point was not whether writers should portray professionals as ethical or not, indeed there is at least one unethical therapist in my upcoming novel. My problem with the BBC programme is that it portrayed the unethical behaviour without comment, thus giving the impression that it is normal and would not attract sanction (which it certainly would). The unethical behaviour was unexplored and only there as a device to move the plot forward. I suppose I am asking whether there are things which are so serious that they should not be used merely to move the plot forward? This is a 30 minute drama, it can only really manage to properly explore one theme – a woman’s discovery that her husband has another family. What if the writer had thrown in that the woman was keeping her cleaner as a slave in the cellar, this was portrayed as perfectly normal and the only role the slave plays is to baby-sit the woman’s child while she follows her husband? It happens, there are slaves in the UK, some people might even consider it normal, however, it feels wrong to me to use the very serious issue of slavery as a device to give a character the time to leave her home. Just as, to me, using the very serious issue of unethical behaviour by counsellors as a device for the woman to confirm her fears about her husband (when this could easily have been achieved in another way) is poor writing. Maybe that is the question I am asking, if we writers throw serious questions/themes into our work, do we have the responsibility to explore them critically?

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    2. kateevans2013 Post author

      I had a thought over-night, maybe the writer was trying to build the rival’s character as one of an unethical/unboundaried person? In which case, I still don’t think it worked as I’m not sure enough people would have realised her behaviour was so unethical and unboundaried, plus we don’t know what she felt about her behaviour. If I take another example, if the rival had been portrayed as a nurse hitting a patient with dementia. This could build her character as someone who has a cruel streak in her. Or maybe not? Maybe she hit the patient because she was over-wrought, end of her tether, had been hit herself, was overwhelmed with fear… etc etc. Without context, this bit of character building still leaves too many question marks. And if the scene with the counsellor in the drama was also about character building, it also didn’t give us enough context for that to be effective. For a 30 minute drama, it’s certainly got me thinking about writing techniques!

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