23 April, 2012

T is for Truth

You can find a full list of my A to Z challenge posts here. :)

Webster's has several definitions for truth (btw, you have to boggle at the circular logic of the English language and its frequent use of having a given word be part of its own definition) but the one I like the best is 1b: Sincerity in action, character and utterance.

Let's face it, part of a novelists job is telling lies. The characters, their thoughts, their actions, their place of being, their everything is a lie. There aren't real people in novels, they're constructs on a page.  They're imaginary. False. Mere illustrations and whimsey. As are the events that unfold around the characters. While a novel may reflect a specific real person, place, or event, the actuality of fiction is falsehood.

However, another incredibly important part of fiction is telling the truth. In some ways, I think it's more important than the lie of fiction itself, in fact, writers use the lie to show the truth.

A character, regardless of their place in a narrative must ring true or the reader is less likely to follow them through the story. For example, if you're writing a powerful business magnate, he or she is not going to sit at a table with the board of directors and whine about how life is so unfair, everyone hates them, and they really wish someone would ask them to the homecoming dance. A teenager with low self esteem, maybe. A corporate CEO at a board meeting, um, no, not unless they've ingested some pretty extreme pharmaceuticals. But it goes deeper than that. The truth of a character is in the little things. How do they treat others? How do they carry themselves? What's their internal dialog like? What's hidden behind their outer shell?

Let's say a female character spends their spare time - what little they have in the busy fictional life they lead, ha ha -  curled up on the couch with a sappy romance novel. What does that illustrate about her? Pretty standard stuff, right? What if, instead, she sits on that same couch drinking cheap beer while cussing at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show finals on TV? It's a completely different picture and, in some ways, a lot more true. Human beings tend to be complex. Characters should reflect that, they should showcase their own inner truth, their own unique sincerity.

A character might lie, cheat, steal and murder, but in their heart of hearts are they despicable without any redeeming quality at all? Are they struggling? Are they lashing out in pain? Are they hopeful, determined, jaded, or on a noble mission? Or do they find mayhem and sadism a sexual turn on? Find that inner truth, that sincerity of that character's actions, inner motivations and utterances, then show readers that shining core.

I believe that fiction, good fiction at least, should have a truth at its heart while telling its lie of a story. A reader will take that truth and make it their own. Often that truth varies from reader to reader. For example, is Stephen King's THE STAND about humankind's quest to exterminate members of its own species? Is it about listening to your dreams, regardless of how impossible they seem? Is it about snarling at the bad and embracing the good? Is it about the corruption of power? Hope? Death? Armageddon? Balance? Redemption? The contagion of religion? The power of friendship? The cost of delving where we should not have gone? I've heard people insist it's about those things and others because, in the book, there is an essential truth a lot of readers have connected with.

I don't know precisely what Mr. King truly intended to illustrate in the novel (he's mentioned he was intrigued by how we can't close pandora's box once it's been opened) but I am certain that whatever he intended to do didn't hit most of his readers. They found something else there instead. The readers found their own truth.

In my novels, I have consistently had a goal in mind, a topic or concept, a specific truth I want to examine and I tried to show this truth from as many angles as possible. So many angles and so much slamming the internal truth of my vision against the narrative that I thought it was blatantly obvious, that I was beating readers over the head with it.

Nope. Didn't happen. Readers consistently saw something else there. Something I hadn't intended, something they alone could see. But when a book is written with sincerity, when it's approached with the humbling task of showing the truth within the lie, when the writer really isn't talking about a murder or a plague or getting a date to the dance, but about something deeper and more true, a novel and its characters can come alive. There's no better story than one built around a hard core of truth.


Linda King said...

Very true (sorry!) - but it is true all the same! The nitty-gritty is what makes characters real. Really enjoyed your post :-) LindaK

Erin M. Hartshorn said...

Use the lie to show the truth -- and how hard that is! Great post.