Saturday, 4 October 2014

Truth in fiction - dos and don'ts for authors

A biography can only tell you what the biographer thinks happened. (Imagine your biographer after you've died earnestly interviewing family, friends and enemies. How close would he get to the truth about you?) Whereas fiction deals in what the author knows to be true. One recognizes one's own experience in a good novel, as well as learning about human nature.

It's always a mistake for writers to bend the truth; readers will instantly notice. It's also obvious when they let their views interfere when depicting character. A writer may disapprove of swearing, smoking, and certain political views, but if all the 'good' characters behave in ways he approves of he'll find it terribly limiting. 

Having a character do something nobody ever would in order to advance the plot is a seriously bad idea. Follow the character, change the plot. Unless one's name is Agatha Christie, that is. It worked for her. Last week I listened to Murder in Mesopotamia, and the plot had me yelling at the radio, "What? What? WHAT?" It hinges on a woman who has been married to her husband for two years not realizing he is the same man she was married to fifteen years before. Now I'm not good at remembering faces myself, but even I might be relied upon to spot that husband #2 was husband #1, lightly disguised by a change of name and a Swedish accent.

Though truth is good, writers need to be careful when adding undigested chunks of their lives to a novel. For some curious reason, that's always the bit readers pick on as being implausible, and it's no good protesting that it really happened to you. I remember on YouWriteOn criticizing a thriller because of the gorgeous personality-free female who seemed like just another bit of the hero's kit. The writer emailed me to say she was based on a real person he'd known. Problem is, even if he put a footnote in the finished book to that effect, it still wouldn't make the character believable.

So to sum up: we must tell the truth, but transform it into fiction first; never foist our prejudices on our characters; show life as we see it. No cheating.


  1. I think you're completely right, of course. Your description of the Agatha Christie novel, however, reminded me of this movie, Lily in Love, starring Christopher Plummer and Maggie Smith.

    It's got a preposterous plot that hinges on makeup keeping Maggie Smith from recognizing her husband of 15 - 16 years (he's Canadian, disguised as a blonde Italian). I actually enjoy this movie for the fun combo of Plummer/Smith and there's some amusing scenes (also some that fall flat). But, yes, if one were to take that plot element seriously, it'd never get off the ground.

    So, possibly what I'm saying is that in farce, something implausible might be gotten away with a teensy bit better. But, even farce needs to be anchored in real behavior.

  2. Ha! I haven't seen that one.

    Even Laurence Olivier, who bleached his hair for Hamlet, wore a prosthetic nose for Richard III and blacked up to play Othello, was still instantly recognizable on screen - so what hope would there be for a man trying to maintain a disguise in real life?

  3. And half of Shakespeare.

    But really, think of it: take the husband. Run him through The Biggest Loser type exercise program. Have his nose fixed, some hair implants (the expensive kind), remove the bags under his eyes and the double chin, and correct that abominable accent that made you divorce him in the first place. Run him through Dale Carnegie and Arthur Murray, do the upper dermis removal thingy that takes away the acne scarring.

    For heavens sake, get him a decent stylist and tailor, and don't let him indulge HIS taste in shoes. Manicure those chewed fingernails - repeat every couple of weeks until he stops that disgusting habit.

    Acting lessons to deepen the squeaky voice. And to improve the posture. Oh, and have him get a tan and learn golf.

    And make him write a daily essay based on something in one of the intelligent magazines or newspapers. And then, if necessary, keep his mouth shut.

    I don't think he'd be recognizable - not with the nice touch of silver at the temples from the 15 years - and the fact that you are too vain to wear your bifocals.

    IMHO, of course.

    You now have a nice spy - or husband #2, as necessary.

  4. Alicia, I am not totally convinced. I think such radical makeovers are the stuff of fiction and I can't recall a single real-life example.

    People have their own smell, and you couldn't change that, plus tiny individual mannerisms, habits and expressions that would be impossible to change. You'd only need to notice one or two small quirks - "Funny, that's just what X used to do," and you'd twig.

    And how could anyone hope to get away with pretending to be Swedish if he is not? With the first Swede he encounters the game's up.

  5. Can't help chuckling at the Agatha Christie plot. That makes opera look realistic. The rest of the post I agree with. It's amazing how unrealistic reality is.



  6. It is, isn't it? In a novel one would never get away with the outrageous coincidences which are quite common in real life.

  7. Many authors say that their basic characters just pop into their heads. They come ready made from the subconscious and don't have to be consciously designed, though minor details can be consciously modified and added to of course. In other words they are basically pantsers and their plotter side is just adding a veneer of action.

    This would seem to imply that the characters are formed as a synthesis of all of the author's experiences stored in the subconscious mind, filtered through the author's particular way of perceiving the world.

    So the novel when interpreted through a psychologist's eyes might give an insight into the author's 'inner soul'. Food for thought perhaps. By being true to their characters authors may be revealing a great deal about themselves.

  8. I used to share your opinion, Q, believing I'd give away an uncomfortable amount of information about myself if I ever wrote a novel. It's true for me that all my characters start as facets of my personality; how else would I know how they feel?

    But now I think that the better the writer, the less possible it is to pin him down. Shakespeare and Jane Austen remain elusive; one is somehow certain the biopics have got it wrong, have missed the mark and made that which is complex simple. The game of 'guess who this character is based on' is merely annoying.

    Psychologists aren't that clever...

  9. Someone who read an early version of Orla's Code said to me about one particular incident in the story: that could never happen. It did happen, I replied. He shook his head in bewilderment and I realised I needed to do more to explain how something came about. Yes, sometimes making reality believable is hard work! :)

  10. I think the more believable one's characters and story, the more of this sort of criticism one gets. Readers know when to suspend their disbelief.

    My problem is that I approach all fiction the same way. For instance, I stopped watching when the agents of a government organization, so secret that even the Prime Minister was not supposed to know about it, drove around in a Jeep with TORCHWOOD emblazoned on the doors.

  11. Lexi's reminded me of when I uploaded a few chapters to YouWriteOn with a character based on someone I knew. This character was singled out for a lot of adverse criticism. Nobody believed that anyone would behave like that. There wasn't much point in defending or explaining - if it couldn't be believed, I had to water the character down or change it completely.

    It's annoying really because when you know that a person really has behaved like that, it ought to be possible to incorporate aspects of that personality into fiction.

    I really do believe that truth can be stranger than fiction but that's not necessarily what a novelist should be writing.

  12. Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction - Anna, that's the post title I was feeling for and didn't quite reach!