truth in fiction
Writer's Corner
Scott Stoops  

How true is fiction?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

Albert Camus

If Albert Camus is right, that fiction is a lie, then we are all liars. And, I would add, unabashedly so. Then, if fiction is a lie, how can it be true? And what exactly does it mean for fiction to tell us the truth?

Truth lie
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

To even begin considering fiction as a vehicle for telling the truth, we need to recognize the breadth of stories that we tell. This breadth encompasses all genres and all styles, from the hyper-realistic to the hyper-fantastic, with some locations that are familiar and others set in worlds entirely of the author’s creation. Sometimes we identify with the characters because they are very like people we know. Sometimes they are strange beyond our ability to grasp.

The one thing that all these stories have in common is that they are complete lies. Because they are fiction, they describe people, places, and events that do not exist and did not happen, at least in the way we are presenting them.

Do all these stories show us the truth?

Should we, as writers of fiction, always strive to tell the truth?

Truth is stranger than fiction

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World

I’ve heard the first part of this quote many times. It wasn’t until I started thinking about this topic that I took the time to find the quote. I find Mark Twain’s quote fascinating.

The common wisdom is that fiction always allows us to probe the boundaries, if we wish, of what is possible. Truth, because it is truth, must be true, and must be bound by possibilities. Or so we would like to believe.

Part of this has to do with the fact that what we perceive as true or real doesn’t always make sense. It is not always cohesive and logical. With fiction, we insist that the world make sense, characters act consistently and believably, and the story concludes in a way that is satisfying if not happy. As authors, we make a promise to the reader: this is what you can expect in this story and I will deliver it. Truth (or reality) need not make that promise.

Fiction gives us the means to filter through all the noise of humanity to reveal what is actually true.

Do all these stories show us the truth?

I am an eclectic reader and will read (almost) anything that is well written. As a writer, though, I prefer telling stories that are speculative. Presently, I’m focusing on urban fantasy and magical realism. That allows me to tell these “fantastic” stories but keeps them in settings that are more familiar.

argument
Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

The heart of any good story is characters in conflict with something1 “7 Types of Conflict in Literature: Character vs Anything!”. We can make the case that if there is no conflict, there is no story. Characters facing conflicts give us the opportunity to explore things that are common to humanity and to express things that are true even if we don’t identify with the specific situation.

In my short story “Devil’s Advocate”, Mitchell – the main character – is isolated and brooding, stuck inside on a cold, rainy day, his sole companion someone identified as Man. I wanted to show those conversations we have with ourselves as we try to work through things. The issues of isolation, loneliness, frustration are common. And Mitchell’s use of alcohol as a coping mechanism is one that many choose.

Any story that shows us some kind of conflict also shows us things that are true.

Should we, as writers of fiction, always strive to tell the truth?

This question isn’t about story consistency. That’s a given. The things that happen within our story must follow the rules of the story world. Our characters can and should act both consistently and in surprising ways. The story world may be familiar or a complete illusion. Our characters may be fine, upstanding citizens or died-in-the-wool liars. The entire spectrum should be true to the story.

Should there always be some underlying “truth” we are trying to reveal?

In the article “Storytelling”2https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/storytelling, National Geographic gives insight as to the origins and purposes of storytelling.

“Storytelling is universal to the human experience. Indeed, although it is likely impossible to prove, it has been suggested that storytelling developed not long after the development of language itself.”

National Geographic

We have been telling stories for a long time. We have told those stories to help us make sense of the surrounding world and to convey truths that would be harder to express without the narrative backing.

Stories reveal things about us and about what it means to be alive in the times and places we live in. This is a part of the role they serve. As storytellers, we can’t help but talk about things that are true even when we draw the settings and the characters from incredible flights of fancy.

Fiction: truth or just true?

While we often use these words interchangeably, there is an important difference. Truth is abstract or metaphysical and usually like: Is there right and wrong? Is there a God? What is the meaning of life? True is more associated with facts, and these facts may or may not be permanent.

In “Devil’s Advocate”, Mitchell and Man talk about many things that are true:

  • Mitchell is feeling isolated.
  • Mitchell has strained relationships with his girlfriend and kids.
  • Mitchell has been using alcohol as a coping mechanism.
  • The weather outside is confining Mitchell.
  • He isn’t taking care of himself.

I wrote no “The truth of this story is” moments. The story depicts how isolation affects us, the importance of connection, the necessity of being appreciated. It also shows us that what we perceive as real may only be our perception. These are the “truths” of the story.

The story’s the thing

How true is fiction?

We’ve probably all read stories where the author has a message that he wants to get across and the message is the focal point. All other aspects of the story exist to serve the central message. These stories feel like thinly disguised vehicles for the author’s ideas and ideologies. The message itself loses power.

There are other stories where the author has an obvious message that he wants to communicate and this message is manifest throughout the story, yet the story itself is interesting and draws us in. Willingly, we drop our guard and embrace the story. The truth the author wants us to see is visible and convincing, while remaining subservient to the story.

Then there are stories where truth is apparent, but there is no agenda. The truths in these stories are so common in our experiences that we hardly notice them.

Finally, there are stories that are just good, ripping yarns and the only purpose is to entertain.

When the writer skillfully spins a wonderful tale with plots that are plausible and characters that are intriguing, we end up with not only a tale, but one that is true. Whether it expresses anything deeper may be irrelevant. The fiction is true.

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