This is a rather long-winded post, but bear with me. I think it’s worth the effort, though I may be kicking a hornets’ nest with this one…
Some months ago, I came across a post on a writers’ forum by an author struggling with a moral dilemma. The author in question was a writer of stories aimed at the Young Adult market. His problem was that one (or more) of his characters was struggling with drug addiction. He worried that he was treading dangerous ground. Would his work be seen as promoting drug use among teens? On the other hand, can he have this character face addiction without it being seen by his readers as “preaching”? If the character does well, is he making drug addiction out to be nothing to fear? If the character falls to his demons, is the author beating his readers over the head with the moral of his story?
The answer, of course, is as simple as it is uncomfortable: The author must be true to the story! This is something I’ve thought about for years and this incident is only one of many in recent months that have brought it to the forefront of my mind. In fact, just yesterday, I read a blog post by Robert Perry on the topic of gore in horror writing and how much is too much. My immediate thought was that this was another place where “Truth In Fiction” must be the guide.
On the face of it, that sounds like a bit of a contradiction. Fiction is, after all, made-up stories that never really happened. Most never could happen. Who cares about truth in a story that is completely fabricated? Stick with me and I’ll tell you why.
In this age of “victim as a career path” and “political correctness”, authors are right to be uneasy. The truth is often a path to trouble—especially when it’s unpleasant. There are whole legions of people out there just waiting to be offended. However, this is only one of many things we must arm ourselves against.
Writing requires that we develop a thick skin. Bad reviews can be painful. Rejection is a way of life. Most of us learn this lesson quickly. But, how many of us are prepared to pay penance for the sins of our fictional characters? Are you prepared to be called racist because you wrote about a character who was? Sexist? A pedophile or homophobe? It sounds absurd, but it isn’t. People have been (foolishly) conflating the less pleasant characters of fiction with the authors who created them for as long as there have been authors writing fiction. Just ask Stephen King. He’s been accused of a great many wrongs simply because he writes about people who commit them. Then there’s Mark Twain. Never mind that the language used in his books was common at the time, and in most cases not racial slurs, but simply common vernacular. That didn’t stop his work from being banned in many schools. The words he used then are not used the same way today, but people often fail to understand this. However, even if Mark Twain were writing those stories today, he would have to write them the same if he wanted to do them right.
So, do we give in to the temptation to just delete these characters of questionable moral value? Do we let the fear of being wrongly branded as a vile person dictate the shape of our work? Of course not! The alternative is far worse – and here is where we get to the meat of the matter: Truth In Fiction is important! In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is more important than explicitly truthful description in non-fiction. In non-fiction it is antithetical to present falsehoods, but one can dance around the unpleasant issues if one prefers and if it doesn’t degrade the information the author is trying to impart to the reader.
However, fiction must create a world and that world must be real—real enough to pull the reader into it, in any case. It’s called the suspension of disbelief, and it is integral to the art of creating fiction. The reader makes an agreement with the writer. The reader says “Okay, we’ve got zombies. They’re the reanimated corpses of the dead and it’s all because they were exposed to radiation from an exploding nuclear-powered egg timer. I’ll give you that. Now, in return, let’s have things make enough sense that I know up from down and can tell a hawk from a handsaw.”
Readers of fiction enter the agreement with the acceptance that at least some part of what they’re reading isn’t real. That’s what makes it fun. We get to experience things that aren’t real and play in that world. But, that world has to make sense to the reader. If it doesn’t, it breaks the illusion. If the world isn’t true then the author has broken the agreement and the world isn’t believable. The reader can’t suspend his disbelief.
Take the example of the drug-addicted teen at the start of this post. That character exists for a reason. If he doesn’t, or if his drug-addiction isn’t in some way relevant to the story, then why would he be there? He shouldn’t be there otherwise. Gratuitous “negatives” (unnecessary gore, pointless explicit sex, etc.) are as big a sin as avoiding those things when they do belong. So, let’s assume that the story needs this character for a reason. Let’s further assume that the character is fighting this addiction. If the character just one day decides that he’s not going to use the drugs anymore and that’s the end of it, no struggle, no meaningful effort, then the author has not been truthful—and the reader will know. The reader always knows.
That’s the key, really. The reader will know. If your work doesn’t have the ring of truth to it, the reader will know and they will not forgive you for it. They may not even know exactly what it was, but if something isn’t quite right, they’ll feel it in their gut and they will pick at it like a scab until they either figure it out or are so distracted from your story that they lose interest.
We all experience the real world every day. A million upon a million experiences build our reality in our minds and we know the shape of our universe on an instinctive level, even if we don’t know its dimensions intellectually. We know when something is not quite right. This subtlety can be used to good effect in horror, in fact. But, when it is unintentional, it can destroy a story. Not because the plot is bad, or the pacing too slow, but simply because the reader is pulled out of that world. They can’t live there any more than a fish can live on land. It must feel right, and people know when something doesn’t feel right.
So, we must maintain Truth In Fiction. If a character is unpleasant, or if some horrific event is required to make the story work, then those things must be in there. You may find yourself wrongly accused of terrible things by people who are unable to separate the author from the fiction he creates. But, isn’t the scorn of a few stupid people preferable to writing something that no one wants to read? Isn’t writing good fiction more important than appeasing those who are almost certainly going to find something to be offended by anyway?
The truth shall set you free!