As children, we are taught that nonfiction means a story is true, while fiction means a story was made up by the author. But is it really that simple?
I don’t think so.
For a moment, I want you to forget what you’ve been taught. I want to explain why fiction is all about truth.
It is not one truth, of course, or one person’s truth. Instead, it is a million truths, pulled from a million lives, all cut up into pieces and pasted together like a mosaic. It’s a new story now. It’s fiction, but real enough that when a reader draws close and examines bits of character, plot, motivation and experience, she can say: “That part is me.”
I know many people who dismiss the value fiction. I’m sure you know them too. They are the ones who interrupt an anecdote you are telling to ask, “Is this a true story?” They are the ones who stop listening when you admit that it came from a novel.
Part of me understands. I’m a truth seeker and a skeptic. Those online stories friends share on facebook and through e-mails? I’m always looking them up, verifying truth and lies.
So why does it bother me when readers dismiss fiction in favor of “truth”?
I’m sure it begins with the fact that I am a writer of fiction. I’ll admit that I am offended by the notion that what I write is false fluff. I take great care with character development and spend hours researching facts and histories to make my stories, if not true, authentic. I won’t put a tree on a canyon ledge unless it could grow there. A bird won’t rest on its branches unless it is indigenous to the area. If my character fills a prescription, you better believe I checked to make sure that whatever she’s taking is real, and currently on the market. (I often want to ask those skeptics: do you think I just make these details up?)
But truth in fiction goes beyond my ego as a writer. Long before I wrote, I read. Avidly. Voraciously. And, yes, I was captivated by the fantastic, the mythical – the mysterious and the foreign. But where was I touched? When did I cry or laugh? What stuck with me after I turned the last page? Truth. The connection I felt with the very real traits I read in my favorite characters. Anne Elliot. Jane Eyre. Melanie Wilkes. Anjuli Bai. Scout Finch. Katniss Everdeen. Abilene Cooper. They are real because, in some way or another, they are me.
Not every story can be told as truth. People experience pain and struggles in their lives that are intrinsically private. While one person might find healing in exposing all through a candid memoir, others simply cannot. Others will not. A well-written story will include characters who endure true trials. They will suffer, triumph, fail or fight as they move from conflict to resolution. While these struggles merely entertain some readers, they offer a touchtone to others. They may even help them begin to heal. In all of us, well-written fiction can create compassion and a sense of common humanity.
Even when reading speculative, science, fantasy and paranormal fiction, I can find truth buried in the hearts of androids, sprites and lycanthropes. Seeing humanity in the inhuman is only, after all, a metaphor for accepting the differences in mankind.
I’m certainly not the first writer who has ever felt the urge to come to the defense of fiction. Jane Austen defended the merit of novels, too, even from the beginning of her writing career. Stepping through the veil of fiction in NORTHANGER ABBEY to make a rather lengthy editorial comment, she said, in part (and with passion):
“There seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them…’Oh! It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame…or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”
If I still haven’t convinced you that truth can be found in fiction, might I at least offer you a counterpoint about the “true stories” you love? Again, I turn to Jane Austen:
“Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.”