Writer Club Rules: Truth is No Excuse

That’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, that truth is no excuse for fiction. I’ve had students who want to fictionalize a real story and then have found themselves floundering because true things are often too unbelievable to work in fiction. Fiction needs to make sense. It needs to be plausible. Reality doesn’t. That’s why the saying, Stranger Than Fiction.

I had a friend who was a compulsive liar. She married about five times before she was thirty, had children from different husbands, and had multiple issues with retaining custody, cross-country drama, and all that sort of thing. And that doesn’t begin to tap into all the things that happened to her on a daily basis and what she said happened to her that didn’t really occur. I don’t remember what the story was, but I wanted to write a real event that happened to her as fiction and I couldn’t let go of what actually happened in order to make it an interesting story.  Turns out, I couldn’t make the story work on the truth. The character made no sense and nothing I was willing to do made enough sense.

Now, a real truth is that writers are magpies. We collect bits of all sorts of truths and realities, and tear them into confetti, then mix them  together, twist and bend, heat and stretch, and generally turn them into fiction. Ursula Le Guin’s introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness discusses how writers are liars who tell the truth. We ask you to believe in people and places and things that never existed (the definition of insanity) and we take that story and tell you the truth about all sorts of things. Art tells some of the strongest truths through lies.

I’ve been thinking about Donald Trump as a fictional character. It would be difficult to make him believable because he’s such an over-the-top persona and frankly he often doesn’t seem to make sense–I’m not talking politics here, I’m talking about how to put together his actions with his words, his life led with his espoused beliefs, and so on. You have to build a backstory that explains who he is and how he came to be that way, and you have to make it make sense to your readers with what they know. Sometimes you can teach readers things, like what a particular medical condition is, or what Stockholm Syndrome is, or so on. It’s much easier to make a caricature of him, because that requires no real depth or understanding.

New things are easier to teach. Things readers believe that they already understand are much tougher. So for instance–when society used to believe that a husband couldn’t rape his wife. To write a story where in fact he does rape his wife would be to fight against what readers know for a fact. It’s swimming upstream and you would have to work very hard to educate readers so they can understand and believe your story. Or when society believed the body contained four humors and that illness was caused by the imbalance of the humors–it would have been difficult to tell a story where blood circulated, there were no humors, and you treated illness with other methods than leaches and bleeding. Or what about little things. Shooting at tires to blow them out doesn’t work that well because the centrifugal force of the air hardens the tires when you’re driving so that bullets have a tough time penetrating. But we have been taught to believe that in fact they can be shot out. So the lie is more believable than the truth. I could keep going, but the point is, if you’re challenging a reader’s beliefs, what he or she knows as a fact, then your job becomes much harder.

I find real people inspirational. Which is to say, they inspire a character, rather than serve as the definition of said character. So I wouldn’t write Trump himself as a character, I’d write a business mogul with a real need for conspicuous consumption so that people will know how smart and rich and powerful he is, what a stud he is with women, even though behind closed doors he cuts himself and has a male lover who constantly ridicules him and cheats on him. That none of his children are actually his own because he’s sterile and resorted to donor sperm. Obviously much of that would not be true of the real Trump, but would be interesting in a character, and would give me conflict for a story.

So even though truth is never an excuse for fiction, it is necessary fodder for fiction. Writers collect bits about all sorts of people and create the character from a collage of those little bits. Sometimes they are terrible people, like Humbert Humbert or Anse Bundren or Scrooge. Sometimes they are redeemed, sometimes they are not. Maybe they are eccentric or sad or creepy, or broken. Maybe they are heroic.

My first rule of Writer Club: Truth is no excuse for fiction.

More Writer Club rules to come in future blogs.



About Diana Pharaoh Francis

A recovering academic, Diana Pharaoh Francis writes books of a fantastical, adventurous, and often romantic nature. She's owned by two corgis, spends much of her time herding children, and likes rocks, geocaching, knotting up yarn, and has a thing for 1800s England, especially the Victorians. Check out samples of just about everything on her website: www.dianapfrancis.com


Writer Club Rules: Truth is No Excuse — 8 Comments

  1. Examining the layers of consensus reality is exactly what most of the classics have done for centuries. It’s fascinating, I find, to reread classics after I’ve read a great deal of history and discover just which outlooks were considered stunningly new at the time, but which to later readers seem business as usual.

    Modern readers can forget how innovative Jane Austen was in her time, for example.She seems quaint and conservative now, because her ideas–that what women thought mattered, and that they could have thoughts on all subjects, that they could have agency without being “evil”–are everyday now.

    Readers can watch Richardson invent the modern novel, bit by experimental bit, during the course of Clarissa.

    I also get a kick out of consensus realities that no longer apply. Of course I am not entertained by the unthinking cruelty of legal rape, or the horrible treatment of animals that one finds all over older fiction.

    But stuff like Charlotte Bronte, and others, using the “science” of phrenology to explicate character. The learned audience knew exactly what she meant, but to us, those carefully described dents and bumps on characters’ heads are just peculiar.

    • I have to admit, I never liked reading Richardson, though I do think of him as writing the first novel. As opposed to Swift whose Gulliver’s Travels seems more like four novellas.

      It is fun to look at how views changed. My dissertation looked at five women’s novels from the mid-1800s in the context of roles of women/the domestic angel and empire. It was really fascinating to see how some of the writers really pushed the boundaries, and yet in the end, tended to uphold the traditional view of women, largely for the sake of the nation and communities.

    • Excellent points, Sherwood! And Diana, yes, whenever I get student stories that rely on “but that’s what happened,” I have to explain that that’s not enough to convince readers. “Truth” is a slippery concept.

  2. You have seen shapes in clouds, haven’t you? A cloud that looks like a fish, say. People never paint clouds like that. Because they don’t look cloudlike, on canvas. And so with fiction. You have to paint what is going to look real.

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  4. Creating a fictional character who has inner conflicts that the real person who inspired it doesn’t have is fine – up until the point where people who’ve learned their human psychology from fiction start assuming that any real person with that surface character must have the same inner circumstances that the fictional characters do. People have been convicted of crimes based on bogus psychological readings of that kind.