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The True Appeal of Fiction

March 24, 2009

Does fiction hold more meaning than real life?

That’s a thought I’ve been trying to get a handle on for a while now. Fiction has a such a powerful pull, and it cuts across all cultures. Is the reason that fiction tries to bring order to to a universe of entropy? It’s not just idle philosophy that bring s the point to mind.

A while back, a friend asked me what I thought made lasting fiction. The question was meant as nothing more than a topic to pass a few minutes of conversation, but it stuck in the recesses of my mind and wouldn’t go away.

There is no one answer to the question. Catcher in the Rye is memorable for it’s protagonist, specifically the voice with which he speaks to us, but it’s no masterful plot. Fahrenheit 451 brings home an idea as well as any book ever has, but most of us would be hard pressed to name the protagonist.

So is it character? Plot? Idea? Writing?

While all these certainly help create a memorable work of fiction there is one element that I think is necessary to keep a story in our memory: Truth.

For fiction to seem real there must be truth hidden in it’s pages, tucked away in the folds of it’s characters, or even in the words of the narrative. Not real in the sense that we think it may have happened, but real in the tangible sense.

It may be something as simple as a villain whose flaws come back to destroy him, or a character who learns from her mistakes and is able to turn her life around. It may be nothing more than an narrator who can speak to us plainly with an occasional insightful observation.

But fiction has the ability to be less messy than life. It has a beginning. And it has an end. It’s characters have problems that lead inexorably to their defeats and their victories. The hero usually wins and the villain usually looses. And even when it doesn’t work out that way we’ll usually get a warning by the blurb on the back cover.

When you write, keep your work honest. Pick something about your work that will be too real for the reader to forget. Maybe it’s your character, who’s so true to life that they can’t be easily dismissed as a figment of imagination. Or give your narrator the freedom to talk to the reader without trying to be clever.

I guess the simplest way to say it is, don’t let your writing get in the way of the reason you’re writing.

  1. March 24, 2009 5:51 am

    Interesting post. I agree with your idea that it’s truth, though of course truth can mean different things to different people. Some characteristics connect with one reader more than others, as do some types of stories.

    So I think some of the more memorable fiction are the books that connect with the truth of a lot of people in that time like The Grapes of Wrath during The Great Depression.

  2. March 25, 2009 1:12 am

    I think that you have hit the nail on the head Dale. To take this to the absolute extreme – one of my favourite writers, Nick Earles, writes stuff that could only really have happened. Anyone who has read Perfect Skin will know that someone really did once upon a time pee on a girl’s cat accidentally while on a really awkward date. Some scenarios are beyond even the wildest writer’s imagination.

    Simple truths bind reader to writer – especially if the underlying theme of the writing resonnates with the reader. I remember Paul commenting on my second Fiction Friday attempt which had at the essence of it – regret. Regret is a universal experience, perhaps hardwired into the heart and psyche – like other human experiences like falling in love, betrayal, remorse etc. Portraying any of these human experiences with honesty and transparency is an invitation most readers would find difficult to decline.

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