Does anyone actually call their kid “child?” Or refer to their son, to his face, as “son?” How about calling their daughter in conversation “daughter?”
If books were to be believed, we do this constantly, but I’ll swear to you I’ve only once, and ever once, heard one person in the world say, “Here you are, son” to their own child. And frankly, that person was a weirdo.
For that matter, I’ve never, in English, called any other woman “sister” except as a joke, and ditto for “cousin.” Old people are not “grandmother” and “grandfather.” I have not once of my own volition used the word “pooch,” nor have I ever worn a “frock,” and I’m too young entirely to wear “slacks,” as is anyone else under the age of forty.
Yet these words persist in books as a Thing We Do.
Who the hell is this “we”? Ain’t me, kemosabe.
A lot of things happen in books that don’t in real life. Book people are glib when reality fumbles, up-beat when a normal person would despair. Fair enough; their job is not to live but to entertain us, and it’s difficult to do that by fuming for thirty seconds before muttering, “Yeah, you too, jerk.”
Actually, that’s a lie. That’s plenty entertaining, people just forget that reality is frikkin hilarious in the face of so many smooth-talking mojos. Remember, you’re the writer; you can make anything funny.
Speaking of un-reality, give your women more funny lines. I swear to you, I actually did, at age twenty-one after graduating from university, in the midst of an appointment with my eye-doctor (who is also a family friend), reply to him saying “The world is your oyster!” with “Or the mollusk of my choice” by accident. Reality’s a comical place. And I read too much Terry Pratchett.
Though speaking of reality, if you’re sitting there writing a “smart” family and you find yourself making them do math at the breakfast table, do us all a favor and stop that. Coming from a “smart” family, I’ll tell you what we do: we eat breakfast and grumble that we’re tired, same as you. Seriously.
I tell a lie again. There was that one time last spring where I was eating my cereal and my dad walked in with the newspaper after he’d been to one of his early-morning service club meetings. (Husband and I were living with my parents due to immigration issues.) My dad showed the front page of the newspaper to my mom and said, “Surprise surprise, it’s been cancelled.”
To which I, on the other side of the table, without looking at the newspaper, replied, “Oh, the double-diamond plan for the intersection on E Street?”
We hadn’t spoken about that intersection in months, though we’d all soundly dismissed the traffic-arranging plans when they were released last summer. I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, and I couldn’t’ see the newspaper. It was just the only thing that would make the front page that we would care about being cancelled. Not a lucky guess; a smart one. Reality’s pretty cool sometimes, but still doesn’t include math over breakfast, or any other meal.
Though I admit that when National Geographic comes, we all quiz each other with the little postcard inside. But we usually get them wrong, except for my dad, who’s, like, into geography. I don’t do any better than my mom, despite having won the geography bee two years in a row in elementary school. Then and now I knew that I won it not because I was good, but because everyone else was worse. C’est la vie.
Technically fiction can be anything you want it to be, from a land of flying horses to a world without rape. The trick is that you must make it believable. Having everyone go around calling each other “sister dear” and “grandmother” is a good way to stick a label on the front that says “Out of touch with reality!”
Then again, maybe your family actually does that. Maybe the last time you went to your local hardware store and got called “little lady” by the condescending salesman (oh, it has happened) you politely replied, “Where can I find the plumbing tape, grandfather?”
And then he got really huffy and offended because he’s thirty-two and balding. So he took extra-long to find the tape or just sneered and said he was all out even though you could see it from where you were standing, to which you informed him he was an ass. Or, more likely, went home speechless to complain to all your women friends, who nodded and agreed that they hate that hardware store too. And then you started shopping at the big-box hardware store where people are friendly and the small-town place went out of business and you commented “Shame” the next time you passed by, all while smiling to yourself.
But then the lot gets bought up by a big company that builds a shady, dark building there and the local kids start disappearing…
Seriously. Reality, people, reality. Stick some in there and you can make anything believable. We’ve all been to that hardware store, we’ve all failed the National Geographic postcard quizzes, we all had a bus driver in sixth grade who spent the winter convinced we were a boy and referring to us fondly as “son” because we wore our brother’s hand-me-down coat, until the one day we got on in a skirt and blouse for picture day, at which point said bus driver went very quiet indeed. (Okay, maybe just me.)
Point is, if you can make the details real, you can make the plot anything in the world. Or inversely, if you want weirdo details, the plot better be pretty darn believable. Either or, because your reader needs something to grab onto.
Your characters ride around on winged giraffes while throwing magic at each other? I guess I can go with it, but the second they say, “Child, bring me my staff?”
To heck with that, I’m outta here.