Truth, Fiction and Real Life

A fiction writer’s task is to tell an entertaining story. There are other things that happen along the way, but not a single one of them will be communicated without that first intent: tell an entertaining story.

Some of the other things that can happen along the way include addressing emotional issues of the author, the reader and the characters… telling hard truths… inspiration… important themes coming forth. Sometimes the author can surprise both readers and themselves. Sometimes the characters can take off and do things that the author wasn’t planning on.

Sometimes, things that happened to the author in real life can appear in the fiction.

When this happens, be careful. Make sure the scene works for all the other reasons that make a scene work, not just because it’s based on reality. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of defending bad writing by saying ‘but this really happened in real life!’ Why is ‘that really happens’ not a solid defense of a piece of storytelling that doesn’t work?

Now, I’m not talking about legal issues, like describing someone who really exists in a negative way – that kind of thing can get you in trouble, if you use real names or unmistakeable likenesses. Or if you put words in the mouth of a person who exists.

Let me give you an example of what I AM talking about. Let’s say that at one point in my life I had a bad experience with a psychiatrist, wherein I was given the wrong medications and nearly killed myself due to the side effects, and insurance companies were of no help. (This did not ever actually happen to me, in case you’re wondering.) Then I wrote a story wherein the main character got a chronic disease, and a doctor wrote the wrong prescription, and the character’s condition got worse rather than better.

Now, if that worked within the story, fine, no problem. If, however, it was a long rambling self-involved dramatic rant about doctors and insurance companies, thinly disguised as fiction and in no way advancing the story, I would be making a mistake. If I really felt strongly about the scene, because of my deep emotional attachment for the occurrences, I might be guilty of thinking that ‘it happened in real life’ was enough to justify keeping that section of the story.

But, to a reader who is not invested in the issue, who hasn’t had the exact same experience (most likely a vanishingly small number of readers) the scene will stick out a mile. If it doesn’t work for its own reasons, for the internal consistency of the story as a whole, it simply doesn’t work.

There can be plenty of truth in your story, but you can’t artificially inject it. Truth will happen on its own, as an inevitable result of telling a good story. You might be surprised at the truths, the themes, the depth that emerges, but it will happen by itself as you write.

But if someone on your peer reader circle, or your editor, or your mother, or any other reader tells you that this part of the story just doesn’t work, remember that ‘it happened that way in real life’ is not an adequate defense.

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