Is coincidence a bad thing in a novel? I think not. I used to think maybe it was but I don’t anymore. That is, unless it is so absurd it makes me distrust the writer. Avoiding coincidence completely because you’re trying to make your story “real” sacrifices too many possibilities. Hey, your story ISN’T REAL. We’re making something out of nothing here. The act of writing is the act of constructing an artificial world, a world made of artifice. Coincidence sometimes serves plot. On the other hand, reality sometimes does not serve it.
I remember this workshop from grad school. Most of us in that workshop were writing stories though a few were writing novels. There was an older guy, a policeman, retired, who was writing a novel about, not coincidentally, a policeman. But there were problems. The main character just wasn’t very believable. Most everyone agreed on this point. We thought the policeman did things that seemed out of character. We thought some of the story elements didn’t fit together.
“But I was a policeman,” the writer said, finally unable to hide his irritation. “I know what it’s like to be a policeman. And that story? That actually happened. That guy in the story. He did that.”
I don’t doubt he did. I don’t doubt the author’s experience either. But the policeman in his story didn’t seem real because within the context of the story he kept doing things, saying things, and reacting in unbelievable ways. Reality let the writer down. Maybe the problems were deeper than just the writer following what really happened. Maybe there were problems in the language and the expression of motivation, too, but I know the writer was upset because he knew what he was talking about and we readers didn’t. We’d never been cops after all. I’ve been in that spot before, too. I wrote about something that happened, that I knew was true, and others said it seemed false. I secretly cursed their limitations. Why couldn’t they see what I was writing was true? But it wasn’t true just because it was based on facts. Wasn’t true for the policeman. Wasn’t true for me. If you don’t convince the reader in your fiction, through technique, skill, art, then it isn’t true to them.
Most of the time, in order to convince the reader a story is true, I have to lie. I have to create an illusion so strong that the reader feels he or she is living in that world and experiencing what the main character(s) are. I think it’s worth reminding myself of this sometimes. I manipulate characters to make a better story. Reality has to serve the story; the story shouldn’t try to serve reality.