Finding the Body — notes on realism

When I was 5 or 6 years old, and sleeping over my best friend’s house, I woke up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. Sitting on the toilet, apparently asleep, was my friend’s father. He didn’t move, didn’t breathe. I believe there were pills – heart medication — sitting next to the sink, though maybe I’m adding those pills to the remembered scene. I woke my friend, and we both went to stare at him, giggling with embarrassment at his complete, full-frontal nudity. I can’t remember how I fell back asleep with a full bladder. Maybe I went outside, or peed into the bathtub. That second option seems familiar, though I question all of it – except for the vision of him on the toilet and my later guilt.

Hours later when my friend’s mother woke up, we realized our mistake. My friend’s mother kept saying the same phrase again and again: “Oh no, oh no, oh no,” until the ambulance came. My friend must have been shattered but I don’t remember her speaking, or anyone explaining anything to us, or trying to make us feel better.

In the historical novel I’m writing, two of my characters find their traveling partner dead on the side of the road. Should character B show more emotion or less? Should character A pitch in and help with the body or shirk the duty? The fact that I don’t know for sure tells me I don’t know my characters as well as I need to. It helped when I gave the characters some other sensory matters to deal with – a shattered jar of milk on the road next to the body, milk from the farm that character C visited the night before (against the wishes of characters A and B), milk which has begun to stink and attract flies in the heat. Concrete details always help. It also helped for me to mull over character A’s backstory, to understand why he would act as he does (stoically, without panic, based on prior experience dealing with a decomposing body).

How do people really react in these situations? How we do create realism and show things as they are, not in the clichéd shorthand that gets further pounded into our brains by television episodes or poorly written stories?

My limited experience reminds me that people react to death in many ways: with confusion, denial, verbosity or silence.

I never found a corpse again but I did once find someone trying to become dead, and my main reaction, after the ambulance came and my heart settled down, was anger – anger as I crawled around on hands and knees, scrubbing the blood from the tile floor on which this particular unconscious body had been found. I can still remember the way the nearly black blood got caught in each crack of that damned tile. No one told me to leave the blood, just as no one told the 5-year-old me that it wasn’t my fault for failing to call an ambulance. In real life, people are less talkative than in fiction – less talkative than in my own fiction, certainly, where chattiness and exposition all too frequently run wild.

I’ve been sketching still-lifes at the kitchen table once a week with my kids this summer, and it’s so damn hard to draw what is front of us, what we’re actually seeing. After drawing one half of a slotted spoon, it’s hard to resist finishing the other half by memory or reason, forcing the spoon into false symmetry. (Even a spoon is hard to draw. Even a spoon!) It’s a lot like writing. The easier and lazier thing is to write or draw an idealized version. The hardest thing is to really observe and get the details right.

“The induction of faith” is a phrase that visiting writer Josip Novakovich used last week, speaking to MFA students enrolled in the UAA low-residency program. (The same Novakovich, the author of April Fool’s Day, that I mentioned in yesterday’s post.) By faith, he meant the faith the writer must have in the created world of the story – not the readers, who come later, but the writer. Every detail, every moment that is real and true and not a cliché, brings the invented world to life — brings death, also, to life.

I have to believe that the corpse exists in my story, that I can see the scene and feel it and smell it, and that when my two characters find the body, they react authentically. There may not be tears. Or there may be. Until I know for sure, until I believe without a doubt, my job as a writer isn’t finished.

4 thoughts on “Finding the Body — notes on realism”

  1. A marvelous post, Andromeda. That chilling memory of finding your friend's father dead – it's the kind of real detail that I can imagine an editor bluelining with a little question mark: real? Because that's how life is, tougher and more unnerving than anything we could imagine.

    There are places in our mind that resist this truth. I get so frustrated watching true crime shows with detectives who say they knew their suspect was guilty because he/she didn't react typically to the death. Should have cried more, should have seemed more upset. "You don't know!" I want to scream at the TV. You don't know this person and the backstory and these circumstances. Who are you to judge the authenticity of a world you don't inhabit? Yet I make a mental note to myself to remember, should I ever find myself in one of those horrific situations, to react "appropriately," so as not to arouse suspicion.

    So comes the truth of Josip's induction of faith. Our characters aren't putting on a show for our readers. They are themselves, real and true.

  2. This is why I write nonfiction — I can't imagine properly. The characters and their actions are never believable in my stories. I have a lot of admiration for writers who are able to put in the hard work that realistic (satisfying) imagination entails.

  3. Our imaginations acting through the filter of memory can, when used properly, create scenes more real than any life we have actually lived. I remember doing an audio play I wrote titled '1917', a one man show about a young Canadian soldier in WW1 traumatized by what was going on around him. A listener wrote me later convinced that I must have lived the scenes, how else could someone have described it that way?

    I reminded the listener that WW1 ended fifty years before I was born. It was just imagination.

    Or was it. The fact is that fiction writers take our real life experiences and wrap them in the clothing of a different story to bring them to life for an audience. It is our way of entertaining / sharing our pain or joy.

    The best fiction is born in the crucible of truth, and polished with the sand of imagination. Then sometimes buffed by the shammy of the outcome we had really hoped for.

    Having served as an EMT and a soldier in the past, I can honestly say that corpses and blood, and pain and mud in the real world make for amazingly detailed stories in the fiction world.

  4. Well said, Basil, and a rewarding comment from your listener, to have gotten it so "right." Not only do we write toward the outcome we'd hoped for, but sometimes toward the one we feared.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top