The Truth of Fiction

Fiction is, by definition, a lie. We even put disclaimers in the front of our books warning readers that any resemblance to persons or events is completely coincidental and has nothing to do with fate, marketing, or fandom. But there is powerful truth in fiction as well. This truth grows from the reader’s trust in the narrator, and their connection to the characters and story.

The First Truth – Realism in Situation

Your world is pretend. Your characters are pretend. Your plot is pretend. Even contemporary novels based on real places or historical retellings are false because they’ve been fed to your muse and regurgitated into a fictional account. Like a child playing house, they may be using real pots and pans, but it’s still just a lie.

But, says you, the pans are real. That’s the truth. Give yourself a cookie because you’ve found the first truth of fiction. Our stories, even the most fantastical ones, have a basis in the real world. Every story builds on what we know to be true, either adding to it or taking it apart. That’s why an author has to research. If you create a believable world, your reader is more likely to accept the unexplainable, and reality will act as a tether so the reader doesn’t get lost.

“And a lie, Mr. Mulder, is most convincingly hidden between two truths.” ~ Deep Throat (X-Files)

But it’s not just the setting a writer must keep in mind. You have to shine a light of reality on your characters so they cast the shadow you want the reader to see. As with your setting, start with a character type and adjust for your vision. Allow the basic character attributes to show through to ground the reader and help them grasp the character’s uniqueness. Use dialogue to your advantage.

Which brings us to the writer’s best friend: the subject matter expert. These people are valuable, and smart writers will cherish them. Nobody can experience everything. To portray details reliably a writer must lean on the experiences of others. Start building your little black book of subject experts now. Treat them well. Let them read your work and tell you where you goofed up, because otherwise people who know better will be yanked right out of your story without you knowing why. Case in point:

While writing a hospital death scene I had the patient flatline. I had a doctor administer the paddles three times with a flurry of activity around the bed, and the patient died. Then I had a nurse look at my scene. Did you know they don’t shock someone without a heartbeat? They give the patient epinephrine or chest compressions until they get a pulse and the shock THEN resets it. Also, they rarely use actual paddles. They use patches now.

If you want details like that in your story, make sure to get them right. They will pull a reader out of the immersion quicker than the sight of your three-headed, eight-legged, fire-breathing chicken. These are the first truth in fiction.

The Second Truth – Reliable Narration

The details are the first truth, but their delivery is the second truth. Every story has a narrator, even if said narrator is invisible. A narrator is the link between the story and the reader and can act either to pull them together or rip them apart. Sometimes the idea of an unreliable narrator is used intentionally as a plot device to cause confusion or deception, such as with a story from a mental patient’s POV. Another narrator’s voice can distance the reader from the emotion of a scene, or plunge them headfirst into it, like how scenes that should inspire horror are instead comedic. These are unreliable by design, and should be approached fully aware of the disorienting effect they cause.

Creating a narrator that’s unreliable for no reason is a breach of the reader’s faith. Examples of this are a narrator that tells a reader one thing, when you show them another through the action of the scene; a narrator that divulges information the writing doesn’t support, making the reader take a leap of faith; or a narrator that contradicts himself as the story progresses. The narrator is the reader’s guide through your story, and you should think carefully about destroying the reader’s trust in that guide.

Another aspect of the delivery of the story is point of view. POV is more of a gauge for the intensity of the third truth we’ll be talking about, but it also pulls in the first and second truths and delivers them to the reader. You can mess up here if you allow your characters to know more than they should, or less than they ought.

Always take care not to give the characters meta-knowledge. Just because the reader knows what Suzy is doing in the next room, doesn’t mean Nancy knows. When we hear someone in real life who knows something they shouldn’t it sends up a red flag. I promise you it’s the same thing with stories. Your reader will immediately stop thinking about the scene and either try to figure out what they missed or disapprove of the story for lying to them.

The Third Truth – A Sympathetic Bond

The other truths were tangible things, learned skills, and improve with attention and editing. Mastering the third truth is what distinguishes a good writer from a great one. This truth is the one that speaks not to the reader’s mind, but to their heart and soul. It gets together at the bar on weekends with Metaphor and Parable and wakes up on the couch the next morning not knowing how it got home. It’s a Fundamental Truth.

This third truth creates a connection between the reader and the story. On the surface, the end product for a writer is a book, but reality (and what great writers will tell you) is that the true end product is an experience for the reader. An emotion. A reaction. It allows the reader to learn a Secret Of The Universe they really knew all along. It connects them to the characters, to each other, and to the writer.

This is a truth of the human condition, or of the human spirit. It’s hard to craft, and delicate to edit, as it breathes throughout your entire story. It’s created by building a reader’s emotional investment in the characters, and revealing a character’s humanity. Showing a reader this subtle truth makes the story real.

How can a story that is by definition a lie, be true? Because the reader’s experience is real. As a teenager I read Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of Sorrows. All the characters are talking animals. It’s a beautiful piece of prose, stately and dream-like. At one point in the story I always cry. It’s when a struggling father is forced to do anything he can to protect his family, and he hits rock bottom but hopes it’s worth it, then he learns they’ve been taken from him because of his own efforts. You FEEL this pain. It hits you right in the gut. It’s real.

“Son of my sorrow, where have you gone?”

The Lesson in the Lie

This is the truth in fiction. Even casual fiction teaches us about human experience. We empathize with the characters and grow as people from that interaction. That’s an author’s responsibility to the world as well. In ancient times storytellers were also teachers. They taught us morality and courage, pain and perseverance. These lessons are still the domain of writers, and still serve to make our lies real.

So craft your stories with all the truth you can, and let the lesson follow.

Swearing in Fiction Writing

To $%^* or not to $%^*, that is the question. I’m going to throw out a blanket statement here, and say that every fiction writer worth their ink-stained fingers has learned to step out of their own personality and into another. It’s sort of a prerequisite for being able to write realistic characters. Whether you, as an author, are willing to push those other personalities to their limits, or blush and scribble out the saucy bits to use more polite words, is not something I can discuss without a few psychology textbooks and a bottle of wine. What I can talk about is a tiny bit of realism that helps to create amazing characters.

When was the last time you said a swearword? Was it today? I bet it was this week at least. How many do you say in a day? In a week? Ok, this could get a little out of hand for some of us. Here’s another question: When was the last time one of your characters said a swearword? Think about it if you need to. You can pause this reading and start it again when you’re ready to continue.

This is where I put a short admission. Not every character needs to swear. Admittedly you’re only seeing snapshots of their lives, and it’s absolutely conceivable they do all their swearing off page… But would they?

(more…)

Writing Anti-Heroes

What makes a character an asshole?

When you think of asshole characters, do you picture villains? The bad guys can be bastards, that’s for sure, and even when they try to be good they usually have bastardly reasons. There are many assholish qualities people will recognize: rude, selfish, inconsiderate, two-faced, liar, inappropriate, uncaring. But are these qualities that should only be shown by villains?

Some of the most loved characters of historical and modern literature (and other media) have been assholes to some degree. Some of these characters are just assholes on occasion, while others are living it 24/7.

(more…)

In the Face of Rejection

The hardest thing I’ll do today is set down this rejection and find the courage to write.

The rejection is unique this time. It’s on a postcard mailed in an envelope. It is, of course, a form letter… but the name of my book was written with a blue pen by a real person. Even I think it’s pathetic how the thought of a real person taking the time to write the name of my book on a postcard would be a point of cheer. But it is.

(more…)

Stereotypes In Writing – Why They’re Ok

I’m a writer.

I’m also a reader.

I’ve had people tell me I should write my female characters stronger, or my male characters more rounded.

Thanks for your opinion, but I will write them how they are.

As a reader, I don’t want all the stories I read to be politically correct. I don’t want all the females to be strong and independent. I don’t want all the men to be good guys. I don’t want all the villains to be bad guys. I don’t want there to be an equal distribution of male/female main characters.

Stories are full of stereotypes for a reason. We reach people by showing them a familiar world, then helping them see it in a deeper way. I want to see stereotypes in what I read.

(more…)

Social World – Personal Marketing

The world is becoming increasing small and digital. If you’re reading this blog, you already know that, because you’re interested in online tools for writing, rather than just the typewriter or word processor in a corner of the house. But while everyone seems closer and more intimate now (read as: in-your-face, everywhere) your personal world is expanding at a breakneck pace.

Social media… yes I know those are dirty words… has allowed fans access into the personal lives of their favorite authors. It’s allowed them to “follow” their idols and publicly “like” the work they do. There’s always been the belief, half-jokingly, that tools like twitter and facebook are socially acceptable methods of stalking for fans. It’s absolutely true. Twitter allows me to stalk my favorite authors. (cough Neil Gaiman and Patrick Rothfuss cough)

The really interesting thing about it, though, is they didn’t used to be my favorite authors…

(more…)

A Cover Is Worth A Thousand Sales

You’ve written your masterpiece. It’s a shining example of literature, a dance of phrases and metaphors. Your readers will cheer and sob, rage and giggle, and at the end they will close the book with a sigh of regret that the story is over.

If they ever read it.

How can you get readers to pick up your book?

(more…)

NaNoWriMo a-go-go!

This year I have decided, for the first time, to participate in NaNoWriMo. For anyone that’s not familiar with this event, you can look here: nanowrimo.org

This decision was partly motivated by the fact that I don’t have any freelance work at the moment, partly by the desire to do more writing, and partly by the need to “cleanse my palette”… so to speak. I figure that a writing sprint like this, on a totally new project, will help clear out all the cobwebs that accumulate as I cycle through my stories making edits and tweaking scenes.

I’m also writing in the sci-fi genre instead of the fantasy genre for this. I have done a little bit with sci-fi, but I’ve always enjoyed writing fantasy more, so that’s what the lion’s share of my work is. This will let me flex my space muscles a little bit and expand my portfolio.

I must say, it’s now the 10th of November and the event has been challenging. I think I’m standing at nearly 17k words. It’s both frustrating and very gratifying to work on this project. I’ve got the ever-so-familiar “this writing is crap, how can I have believed I could do this” doubts, but I’m pushing through them.

My main motivation for this story is to write something my son will want to read. Usually he turns down my stories because he doesn’t like “those kinds of books”. This time I asked him what I should write about. He said “space monkeys” and I said “wha?”. So I’m writing a story about space. The “monkeys” are a little… metaphorical… but there you have it. Hopefully he’ll enjoy reading it as much as I am enjoying writing it.

Voice In a Silent Medium

Every piece of writing, from fiction novels to web content, has a voice. A professional writer will be able to recognize and manipulate this voice to suit a purpose. That purpose varies widely depending on the application of the writing required.

For instance, a fiction novel may use an epic voice to tell a story about adventure or tragedy, something that harkens to the days of long ago and kindles the flame of passion and danger in the reader. A poem may use an angry voice to incite the reader, or a voice of sadness to make them share the writer’s sorrow. A non-fiction paper, such as a thesis, will use an educated voice to lend authority to the words.

It’s often natural for a writer in those mediums to find the correct voice. We read a lot of those types of works, and we will naturally tend to a similar voice when trying our own hand at it. Many very successful writers are noteworthy for breaking these tendencies. A new type of voice for an old genre can make it unique and interesting.

What is more difficult to work with, is the voice of content writing and advertising.

(more…)

Write On, My Friend

Warning: Highly editorial content ahead. May cause feels. May result in irritation.

Write on, my friend. Though only the paper sees your words, and only the pen is washed clean inside with their meaning, write on. Only through writing will the writer live, and only through writing will his mind be set free.

Sometimes as a writer, especially a self-published or unpublished writer, we feel defeated when we think nobody is reading our work. Sometimes we labor for years on a story, suffer through everything our myriad characters suffer through, only to experience the ultimate tragic ending: to not have it be READ. There is something heartbreaking about lovingly creating an entire world only to have it, seemingly, ignored by readers.

(more…)