Thursday, February 25, 2010

Questions about Truth and Fiction

"The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel, without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting."
~Henry James (Photo from Wikipedia)

Novels should capture and hold our attention. They need to be interesting. By what other criteria could we judge novels, which are varied, unique, solitary beings? No one wants to read something uninteresting, dull, or boring.

The quote from American writer Henry James lead me to some general questions about writing.

Should writers embellish and exaggerate the truth in order to be more interesting to readers?

Do we make things up just for the sake of being interesting, or should we try to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, at all times, including in our written words?

If truth is stranger than fiction, as it so often is, then why not stick to the truth? If we write exactly what happened or will happen, will that be enough?

What do you think, about any or all of these questions?


  1. I'd never heard the Henry James quote before, but I'm going to have to save it now that you've introduced it to me!

    You raise some excellent and interesting questions. Someone called fiction "a lie that tells the truth." Obviously, if we're making up characters and places and events that never happened, we're straying from the truth, but if, in so doing, we're able to remain true to the essence of real people, places, and events, we're often able to dig a little deeper into the truths of life. It's definitely a delicate balance - this telling of lies in order to reveal truth!

  2. It's all about the angle of perception.

    With James Frey's book, A Million Little Pieces, it was not clear that he was stretching (okay, lying) about events. But with David Sedaris' books, I think the readers assumes there's a little distortion for entertainment value.

  3. IMHO, we should try to keep the information we are sharing in a novel as true as possible, ie. research our information. Yes, it is fiction. Yes, it is a stretching of the truth. But for a reader to be able to stay with you for say, a murder mystery, you have to keep your CSI doing the forensics as close to the real thing as possible to keep the reader reading.

    Now if you are making up your own universe with your own people, ie. Muggles, Hobbits, etc. then you are a lot more free to do whatever.

    Great subject, and interesting questions!

  4. K.M., thank you. I've heard people call professional writers professional liars and that bothers me; as you say, fiction may reveal the truths of life.

    Jamie, thank you for stopping by. Your comments raise another question: how much "lying" is permissible?

    Kim, thank you for adding your thoughtful insights to this post.

    More comments welcomed!

  5. Hi Susan! What a wonderful subject! If you're referring to historical fiction, then one must research the time period and be as truthful as possible, to both educate your reader and to make the setting feel real. With fantasy, anything goes!

    I teach people how to write their family stories and autobiography. I encourage them to stick to the truth. Many people worry that their lives are boring but we can make the truth very interesting by adding a few facts. Did you know that in 1942, during World War II, they rationed gas to 3 gallons a week? Did you know that it cost 10 cents to go to the movies? Did you know that it cost 5 cents for an ice cream cone? To me, these little things can add interest to anyone's biography. The true secret of writing one's story is becoming a "storyteller."

  6. First of all Suko, I found this really cool post by Maureen Johnson on Robert Langdon which I had to share -

    Have u read Lost Symbol? I hope u have, because this post is related to that :)

    Next to the question... I believe that the fiction plot, characters and everything is born out of some true character or plot. And that it has happened somewhere. Fiction in a way gives us a glimpse of lifestyles of the era in which it is set. I don't think that kind of thing can be invested at all. There is always some kind of truth that may be not related to the author in question, that the author writes about.

    I don't think novels like Things Fall Apart, loads of classics are all imagined stuff, they are - if not based on the authors life- based on some characters life that lived and inspired it.

    I hope what i am saying makes sense :)

  7. Great quote! Well, it all depends.
    I'e heard some great authors, like Stephen King, give advice on writing. And the one piece of advice they usually give is to 'write what you know'. If it's fiction youre writing, base it on some piece of truth. This way it's believeable to the reader.

    I dislike it when i'm reading a book and I have to suspend all disbelief in order to believe what is going on in the story. The story can be about fantasy like vampires and werewolves, but it the book sticks to some form of reality, if the characters and storyline seem real, it's all good.

  8. I love the quote! Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, but I don't think it's necessary to stick with the truth when writing a book.

  9. Linda, your work demonstrates that historical fiction and family stories can be truthful AND entertaining at the same time. Thank you very much for stopping by and adding your thoughts to the discussion.

    Veens, I haven't read The Lost Symbol but will visit the post soon. What you say does make sense. Fiction stems from "real life" and must have truth in it--or it's not believable. Even when we suspend disbelief, there must be enough truth to engage us (and now I hope my words do not confuse!).

    Naida, well-said. This topic is rather complex, isn't it? I remember that bit of advice from Stephen King's book, On Writing. And even in the most far-fetched tale, there needs to be kernels of truth.

    Bermudaonion, thanks for your comment. Fiction is fiction after all.

    More comments about welcomed.

  10. I didn't know that quote, Suko, but what an interesting topic and some very insightful comments too.

    I write mostly historical novels and I try to be meticulous about getting the details right, because it annoys me so much when I see books that are just modern stories in fancy dress. However, as I write cozy crime, I find it much easier to set my books 150 years ago because I don't have to worry about forensics, or finger prints or DNA!

    I know quite a few short story writers and they often turn an anecdote into an interesting story,whereas the original real-life experience would be very dull to read. A story is a story and has to grip the reader, and a longwinded anecdote can be pruned and tweaked to do just that!

    I don't think fiction can, or should, be described as lying. I think it's more about creating a believable world where the author and readers can meet and share the experience and hopefully enjoy the story.


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