Six impossible things

Truth and Fiction

It is an odd and interesting thing that in a group of professional liars and their willing audiences, there are so many people who are so deeply concerned with telling the truth. Fiction is made-up – that’s part of the basic definition (though calling it a flat-out lie is perhaps an exaggeration) – yet it is common for people who want to compliment or complain about a story to focus on how “true” it is.

The reason, of course, is that fiction shows us ourselves. We consider that important, at least some of us do, enough so that most of the stories that last are ones that many people consider the truest in their portrayals of emotion or the human condition. Consequently, a lot of writers find themselves struggling to enhance this aspect of their writing, and worrying excessively about it.

There are two problems with obsessing about truth in stories, though. The first is an aspect of the human condition itself: there is not one lone, solitary truth to be told, but many truths. My fiction reflects my life experience and the lessons it has taught me, but not everyone draws the same lessons from the same experiences … and we certainly don’t all have the same experiences to begin with.

The disparity in experience and in what lessons and issues we each consider important shapes fiction, both from the writer’s side and from the reader’s, and therefore it shapes the critical judgment of the work. Those readers who agree that what the work is examining is important will be more likely to be interested and enthusiastic about the story, sometimes even if they do not entirely agree with the writer’s conclusions. Those who think that what the writer is saying is unimportant tend either to dismiss the story as “badly written” or “fluff”, or to criticize the story directly for focusing on what they see as the wrong thing.

When this criticism is obviously far off base, it’s generally easy to ignore. If a novel is primarily focused on the main character’s emotional recovery from a traumatic brain injury, few writers (or readers) will take it seriously when someone objects that the story doesn’t deal with the implications of global warming or the politics of gay marriage in the U.S. No matter how important one thinks those issues are in real life, they aren’t what the book is about, and leaving them out is a perfectly reasonable thing for the author to do.

Sometimes, though, things are not so clear-cut. An author who writes a murder mystery in which the victim is shot to death has an opportunity to include a stance on gun control and/or the right to bear arms, but bringing up that whole political debate may (and quite often will) drag the murder mystery very thoroughly off-track. When this happens, the author has to decide which is more important: making a point about the right to bear arms (or gun control), or telling the story effectively.

Whichever choice the writer makes, he will be open to criticism from people who think the other choice is more important. And because including the politics of gun ownership in a story with a gun-related murder looks more plausible than shoehorning global warming into a story about traumatic brain injury, a lot of writers take this kind of criticism on board and second-guess their choices.

The thing is, either choice is valid. Nobody is required to believe that global warming (or any other issue) is more important than telling an effective story…and nobody is required to put telling an effective story ahead of their personal convictions, either. And I can acknowledge the validity of both choices, even if I disagree with the author about which thing I personally would consider more important if I’d written the story.

Which brings me to the other problem with truth-telling in fiction: space. Even in a multi-book series, there isn’t room to examine every possible problem, or even to explain the backstory behind a particular variation on a problem. Of necessity, things get compressed. The writer has to choose which things to demonstrate in detail, which to mention in passing, and which to leave out completely. And there are always things that have to be left out completely, and some of them are things that are extremely important in real life.

What that means is that the writer is only ever really telling part of the truth, even if he’s doing his best to focus on just one thing and explore it in depth and in detail. We count on our readers to read between the lines, to catch the hints and implications, to fill in the bits that just aren’t part of this particular story.

The truth the reader finds in a story – any story, even Shakespeare’s or Homer’s – is at least half their own. The writer’s job isn’t to spoon-feed their audience neat and tidy bits of truth that they already agree with; it’s to find an interesting patch of jungle to explore, light it up and maybe hammer in a couple of signposts at particularly interesting places, and then point the reader in its general direction.

It’s a lot harder to do than it sounds, and there are always going to be people who think the signposts are pointing in the wrong direction, or worse yet, who think that the signs are in a completely wrong place. They’re unhappy that their particular truth has been left out of a story, or left mainly to the reader to fill in, and the only thing the writer can do is to have written a completely different book. Which will make other people unhappy because their truths have been left out. In other words, you aren’t ever going to be able to please everyone, and obsessing about it is both pointless and counter-productive. Tell the truth that’s right for the story and for you, and leave the other truths for the stories they’re right for.

  1. Depends on how far ahead of the story you put your personal convictions — books are sold as stories, after all, and the reader’s entitled to one.

  2. Thank you for the sound advice.

  3. My personal bugaboo is choice and it almost always works it way into my stories, sometimes subtly but more often it ends up the core theme for the story. However, it’s the theme, not the message. I tell stories about various choices people make and I hope the readers can identify with the, in one way or another. I have no interest in giving the reader my opinion. I used to write non-fiction for that and found it boring. I’d much rather hide it inside a fun story.

    • Mary – It also depends on how many readers agree with you that X is more important than anything else. I’ve seen books I thought were horribly preachy that got loads of sales – and I think it’s because the people who agreed with the book were hungry for any story that took that particular stance – even a lousy one.

      Rachel – You’re welcome.

      Alex – I think most writers have one particular issue that works its way into their stories no matter what. Sometimes it’s obvious that somebody is always writing about power, or identity, or choice. But there are so many possible stories to tell that I don’t relly think it matters much.

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