Good fiction should be true to itself
“I think you just have to try your hardest to tell the truth. When you’re writing fiction, you’re making a lot up, but there’s a difference between making something up that’s untruthful and something that’s truthful. You don’t want to ever feel as if you’re acting falsely. It’s this emotional resonance and you can lie in fiction. Part of the trust that the reader provides is putting their attention in your hands, and you have to be able to tell them that you’re never going to lie to them. You’re going to tell them a story, but it’s not going to be untruthful. It’s much more nebulous than straightforward fact, it’s more mysterious and harder to define. You know it when you hear it, and you also know when it’s missing.”
– Lauren Groff, in an interview on The Rumpus.
People often ask me why I do research. After all, it’s fiction. I’m making it all up.
Suppose I don’t check the history books and I tell you on page one of a novel that the War of 1812 started in 1814. Will you trust the rest of the book?
When we listen to the news on TV, we’re often aware when the anchor person is slanting the story. The facts might be right, but they’re not all there. Objectivity is hard for humans to achieve. But reporters are expected to try. Reasonably informed viewers aren’t easily deceived by stories that are spun toward one agenda or another.
When fiction is written about other times or places or cultures, an author’s false spin is often more difficult to detect. Needless to say, many novels focus on the storms and stresses of history or upon the injustices in today’s world. Chances are, most authors are trying to truly tell you a good story that also brings to your attention a crime or a policy or a way of thinking that hasn’t been on your radar.
Yes, the author will probably have a point of view and that will flow through the novel. Yet, they still need to maintain the ethics of a good reporter. That is to say, they need to give the story room enough to tell itself without flavoring it with their own judgements about the characters as the plot unfolds. There’s no need to lie about bad men. When we lie about them to make them appear even worse than they were, then we’ve lost our way.
Even in fiction, readers deserve the unvarnished facts about the characters and what they do–even if those characters are wholly imaginary. Authors usually find that their stories have inherent truths to them; those truths are organic and arise out of the kinds of characters and events the author has created. Things that don’t fit usually stand out when the author is revising the manuscript and when the editor is helping in the creation of the final version.
Good stories impact the readers’ emotions. Not to overstate this, but authors are morally obligated, I think, not to stir those emotions with lies. We’re by no means perfect. We can get caught up in the heat of the moment while writing critical scenes. That’s why our mentors advise us to let the first draft of a story sit for a while. That gives us time to cool off and bring our objectivity and quest for fairness back to our desks when revising the material.
I can forgive a reporter for slipping because s/he is working on a very short deadline. Authors usually have time to reflect on what they’ve said before sending a manuscript to a publisher. Groff says that the time a reader takes in reading a novel, is a gift to the author. I agree and work like hell to deserve it.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Sarabande,” a contemporary fantasy coming out on November 1 in a new second edition from Thomas-Jacob Publishing. The Kindle version is currently available for pre-order.