Welcome. This blog was started three years ago by four aspiring writers who are now three published authors of novels and short stories (Barbara Elsborg, Dawn Jackson, Arlene Webb) and one multiple award-winning writer (Laurie Green). We blog to keep readers updated on our new releases or other random topics. We hope you enjoy your stay. :] Coffee?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Another Ramble: Coincidence in Fiction

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is coincidence.

Sound familiar? How about this? "Life imitates art."

The question of coincidence has been a plot point in at least one popular movie. In Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone's character is a wealthy heiress and author. When her parents and a lover die in circumstances very similar to murder scenes from her books, detectives are suspicious. The coincidence might be incriminating evidence.

Coincidence in fiction is a real concern, or there wouldn't be a reason for the above paraphrased blurb.

Coincidence happens.

As writers, the need to pen "fresh, original" material craved by editors and agents, but even when we think our ideas are exciting and new, that may not be the case. I mentioned Dawn's run-in with the Crystal Skull problem in my Cliches and Icons post. Sometimes writers create situations in their minds that have already happened, will happen in the future, or become part of pop culture. Ever heard the adage about putting a monkey in a room with a typewriter and eventually he'll (or she'll) write an entire novel? Yeah, it's kinda like that. If you can dream it up and type it, it's probably something that actually happened somewhere, sometime, or is in someone else's novel.

But coincidence in fiction isn't just about names or a sequence of events. Sometimes things can take an almost prophetic turn.

I wrote an early draft of Draxis many years ago. As fate or bad luck or forces of irony would have it, my main character's name is Katrina and there's a reference to her in an ancient legend as "The Wind of Change." Lo and behold, years later the name Katrina comes up for a developing hurricane in the Atlantic, and this terrible storm proceeds to devastate New Orleans and much of the Gulf coast. People die or endure terrible hardship, and an entire region is left a water-logged wasteland. Suddenly, critiquers who had no problem with my character's name the week before became incensed that I would invoke such terrible memories by using it. I thought a long time on what to do. I resisted changing her name; I felt it suited her character. My decision was to--pardon the inappropriate pun--weather the storm. A friend pointed out that no would would have taken exception to a character named Andrew or Camille, but those had also been devastating class five hurricanes. Time passes and painful memories fade. It was only the timing that made my character's name controversial. I kept her name Katrina. I haven't had a negative comment for over a year. Public sensitivity ebbs and flows.

Names can be a touchy subject. No one quibbles if your character is named Mary, John or Thomas. Come up with something more exotic and chances are someone else did first. I changed the names of two of my characters multiple times before I was satisfied with Ryn, my staunch, manipulative admiral in P2PC, and Timmar, my Jeckyl-and-Hydesque assassin in Draxis. As it turned out, both of my "original" names were character names in novels I later read. So much for originality. Since I'm an avid reader of both authors' work, I worried about this quite a bit. I emailed them to express my concerns (dismay) over the coincidence and wondered if I should (*sigh*) change the character names, yet again. Both had a similar response. [paraphrased] Don't worry about it. This is far from a rare occurrence in fiction.

Yup, coincidence happens.

I haven't changed the names (again) to date, but I may in the future. This will be a good question to ask an editor when the books reach this stage. As writers, we have to think of our work like clay. A WIP is exactly that, a work in progress. It can be reshaped, tweaked, and manipulated at any point in the editing/marketing process. Nothing we write is carved in granite.


Flick said...

All so true, Laurie. I remember an Australian friend on CC who's written a great fantasy - I better not give the name and details - but it was about trees!! She'd come up with all sorts of ideas and names and low and behold - finds someone else has a very similar title and similar names and ideas and at first glance it almost looked like plagiarism - it wasn't. They are two different stories but it upset her I know.

I threw my own temper tantrum when I read the blurb of a book I thought was similar to mine but when I read it, it vaguely was, but not enough to make me scream.

The thing is we all do copy ideas and names in a way. It happens to us or occurs to us and someone may have the same things happen and occur to them. I was trying to think of a plot device in a vampire book and my husband - who has never read a vampire book in his life - said - why not create regions for the vampires to control and make kings and queens of those regions.
Been done, says I. He went on to suggest three more things - I've read them all before in other people's books. That doesn't stop me using something similar but how great to come up with something different and that's why it hurts so much when you find you're beaten to the punch.
As for Katrina - well you know, I hadn't read the story until well after the NO disaster and the link never even occured to me. Time moves on. Every name has bad connotations for someone - the death of a loved one, a bully, a horrible boss. We can't please everyone. And if we try too hard to ocome up with something very different it makes the story too hard to read. I can think of one sci fi writer - very popular with my peers whose character names drove me crazy. By the end of the first few chapters I had no idea who was who.

Laurie said...

I had that happen with Lakehouse, Flick. My story premise and idea was almost identical to the movie that came out, even the title, though in my story the house the father built had started as a log cabin and it was on a lake--but not ON a lake (built on piers) like in the movie. The characters were also separated by 16 years, not five or whatever in the movie. Oh, and no mailbox. The letters were left in a hollowed out tree.

When it first came out I was so ticked and felt sure someone had taken my idea and run with it. I was wracking my brain on who I'd discussed it with. Finally figured out there was no link and it really was pure coincidence.

Flick said...

Yep, just like the one where we on on vacation in LA, at Universal Studios and I heard this English voice shout - Barbara! Friends from the UK- who we didn't even know were going to the States, had chosen the same place to go that day. Chances of spotting them were vast but then the next day we saw them again at a farmer's market near La Brea Tar pits. Since then, we've always assumed we'll bump into them. Hee hee

Ah, I had an idea for a business. A one stop place to buy everything you needed for kids - not babies as such but beds desks etc for older kids. A kids r us - superstore. I planned it out. No capital to do anything. Guess what. Next year - such a superstore opened in the UK. Grrr.

My other idea is a internet business called List.com - well that might exist. But I had the idea of lists for weddings, Christmas, holidays, vacations, funerals, birthdays (themed) graduations, baby showers etc etc and all the things you need to remember to do. This will appal to you Laurie with your organisational bent!! LInked to adverts for the region you live in so it would be profitable. I don't have the technical expertese to do it so remember you read it here first - assuming I haven't already been beaten to to the punch.