I mean representing reality, even our fictional reality, as it really is, without fear or holding back. I believe it’s the duty of the artist to represent the world, even a made-up one filled with made-up people, in the round, without deception or holding back.
Sometimes writers get all coy over the issue of truth in fiction. They may be worried about upsetting people by using swearwords, writing sex scenes, or showing painful interpersonal conflict between people. This is a mistake: at best, it isn’t playing fair by the reader; at worst, it leads to bad fiction.
Let’s look at this.
In the first case, it’s true that gratuitous overuse of coarse language can be obnoxious, attention-seeking, and a crutch for poor writing, especially in dialogue. And some fine writers, among whom Charles Portis (True Grit, The Dog of the South, Norwood, et al), arguably one of the very best American authors of the twentieth century, have written several books without using a single swearword.
In fact, any bad language can alienate some sensitive readers. But if you’re writing adult fiction, it’s stretching credibility to have someone say, “Oh, sugar!” when they hurt themselves or run out of gas in the middle of the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel during the evening commute. The truth is that people in real life, even the best brought-up people, do swear, often, and almost without exception when bad things happen. Some people even go so far as to use swearwords as punctuation. This is reality, people. And I take the firm view that it’s the writer’s job, even in the most escapist fiction, to represent the reality of the world (Stephen King addresses this same point wonderfully in his book,On Writing; John Gardner has a whole chapter on honesty and truth in The Art of Fiction).
The same thing goes for sex. Most adults spend a large amount of time thinking about sex, and—all things being equal—enjoy practicing it whenever the opportunity arises. It therefore follows that if you’re writing fiction for grownups, at some time or another your characters are going to think about, or have, sex. And yet I can’t count the number of times I’ve listened to newer writers agonize over writing a sex scene out of concern that their parent/relative/boss/coworker will end up reading their book, and what will they think of them as a consequence.
The reality of course is that if the reader in question is also a grownup, they won’t probably think anything negative about the author—unless the sex scene is poorly written, in which case they’ll think the author is a bad writer. More to the point, if the scene is done well and feels like reality, they’ll probably appreciate the honesty. Because the huge majority of readers respond very well indeed to honesty, including hot bedroom scenes and, where appropriate, coarse language. It’s part of making the fictional dream real, people!
People read for a variety of reasons, but most of us read for entertainment. When a reader invests his or her time in a book, they want to forget they’re in a book, and that only happens when the fictional dream feels 101% real. This is true whether the story in question is a gritty portrayal of a woman’s struggle with an abusive husband or a fantasy novel set in the swirling mists of Elvenhome; it’s true in a novel set in Iron Age Britain or on a starship full of colonists on its way to settle new worlds in a distant star cluster. It’s true even even when the characters are intelligent rabbits (Watership Down) or talking trees (Tolkien’s Ents from Lord of the Rings).
One of my favourite quotes is from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who said, “Mediocrity knows nothing but itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius”. Similarly, a writer who’s lazy and incompetent may see nothing wrong with their own work, and wonder why it’s not selling. But as a competent writer, you can see the brilliance of your literary heroes, and yet know you’re not quite hitting the mark with your own writing: your work is adequate, but it doesn’t feel fully realized, fully true. You feel they’re not quite there, and so do your readers. It’s a tough place to be, because there may be nothing technically wrong with your writing, nothing to put your finger on—it just doesn’t soar.
Sometimes we don’t yet have the craft to dig really deep, get deep below the skin of our characters, fully think through the situation, or explore the world we’ve created in enough depth to bring the fictional dream to full life and make it resonate with truth. We may be too inexperienced or simply too young; we may balk at the challenges of credibly representing the painful stuff, the raw emotion; but if we really care about what we’re doing, we’ll work hard and eventually power through these obstacles until our fiction is true. Writing isn’t for sissies: it takes tenacity, courage, and hard work.
To conclude, the writer who works hard to make their world real and fill it with interesting, believable, fully-fleshed characters who capture our hearts, hold our attention, and move us with their loves and conflicts, successes and failures, will produce a true work and find their audience. Persistence does bring success.
How do you define truth in fiction? What do you think other writers often miss?
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