F-I-C-T-I-O-N—“T” is for Truth

What if I were to announce that Fiction is the literary form best designed to convey and reveal the Truth? If I were back in my old classroom I would imagine a phalanx of frantic hands, waving before my face in protest.

“But Mrs. Lockhart—”

“Don’t you mean it the other way, that only nonfiction tells the truth?”

No, absolutely no. Actually, the student answered his own question. Nonfiction is data-based. It is ideal for documenting, delivering an account, and telling facts, not showing the Truth. So what’s the difference and what makes Fiction so ideal?

Data and facts change continually. A Fact is supported by currently believed data, and that data is always subject to change. Truth does not change.

I think there may be some doubters out there in cyberland. Indulge me while I give a few brief history lessons. Up until 1492, learned men of the western world would state as an absolute fact that the world was flat, yet Christopher Columbus managed to sail around part of it. Up until a little over 100 years ago (mid to late-1800s), scientists still believed in spontaneous generation: a plate of raw meat placed outside in a dish produced fly larva. (“Duh,” we say now.) As late as the 1950s the medical community believed that Sickle Cell Anemia ocurred only in blacks of African descent (incidentally, that’s not the case, but requires another blog). See how easily facts change? A very modern 20th century example of facts changing is forensic DNA evidence used to release innocent people from prison.

It actually bothers me when I see statements that begin like this: “Fiction and nonfiction (true) stories….” So here’s another way to look at what you read and write.

Good fiction is Truth, real life with all the dull bits left out. It’s as simple as that. Unless something critical to the story happens while the protagonists or antagonists are doing grocery shopping, it’s left out. Same with cleaning up after dinner or brushing one’s teeth–unless it somehow contributes to the scene and the story.

Fiction excels at providing the Reader with a simulation of reality. You’ll notice I didn’t say the blow-by-blow facts, but the essence of real life, what attracts us and enthralls us about life.  Fiction provides numerous intimate details about lives as well as vivid descriptions of people and places. A good novel can actually go beyond reality because it takes us into the minds of other people.

A Writer’s power of metaphor can further enrich all physical senses. These special characteristics are a bonus and simply not found in most nonfiction. The creative mention of coffee or perfume can awaken olfactory senses; writing about being lost in the heat of the Sahara and deprived of water can actually make the reader uncomfortable. Pretty powerful stuff, isn’t it?

The writings of Shakepeare contain most of the world’s Universal Truths. One test of  Truth contained in literature is its ability to be transposed to another time and/or setting. Consider the Bard’s major themes: family issues, sex, money, status, power, revenge, loyalty, betrayal, longing, destructive pride, politics. Just like your average daytime soap opera.

Here are some more Universal Truths that are found well-illustrated in Fiction: love, hate, culture conflict, yearning for freedom, homesickness, deprivation, the basic needs of life, patriotism, fatal flaws, life with disabilities, discrimination, loneliness, or narrowmindedness.

Nonfiction, by its very definition and limitations, cannot convey these elements, except by implication or in quotation.  It’s called “editorializing,” this injection of personal feelings into a nonfiction account. (A little note aside: those of us who have written “nonfiction with feeling” have learned to choose our sources wisely: quoting others who believe as we do is how we make it work.)

For both the Writer and the Reader: Consider which Universal Truths lie at the foundation of your writing (no matter the subject of your novel or short story) and which Truths you most enjoy reading about. What other Truths come to mind?

We’re not finished with the letter T , not just yet. Next blog we’ll talk more about Truth and some other nifty goodies  found only in Fiction.

Thanks for stopping by The Writers’ Table. Your comments, questions, and input are always welcome.

Michaele