Truth and Fiction

I recently had it suggested to me that because I write fiction, everything I write can be assumed to be untrue. I think this is rather an interesting line of thought, following on from previous proof-ponderings. What is the relationship between truth and fiction? Isn’t fiction basically about lying? How then can an honourable person be a fiction author?

What this flags up to me is the idea of truth working on different levels. There is situation specific truth – he said this, she said that. There are also the deeper, broader kinds of truth about human nature, psychology, reality. For fiction to work, in any genre, I think it’s essential to tap into those wider truths. If there is no emotional truth in a story, people do not find it credible. To function, a story must be believed, and to be believed it must express something recognisable. We might be in a galaxy far, far away fighting strange alien life forms and wielding wild technology, but the human emotions have to make sense.

Truth in other art forms is equally about capturing the essence of a thing. So in visual art, you aren’t limited to literal interpretations, you can go after creations that capture a feeling, a moment, the way something moved or a host of other entirely true things. In music I think there’s a continual reaching for emotional resonance that is entirely about truth.

A lot of human thinking has to do with abstracts and archetypes. Our notion of ‘horse’ is broad enough that we can fit any individual horse we meet into it. The same for person, or tree. A thing that challenges our understanding may make us shift the boundaries, but we hold them and they matter to us. Story-truth relies a fair bit on archetypes and abstractions, but to ring true the reader needs to feel that if they were that person, who had been through those things, they might just act in the same way.

To be good fiction, the story must be true in essence even if you have made up all the details.

I am therefore inclined to suggest that a person who writes fiction needs a keen sense of what is true and what isn’t, and develops a clear understanding about what is imagined by them and what belongs to external reality.

I’m also very wary of broad, sweeping thought forms that can be used by one person to entirely invalidate another person’s perspective. Too young to know what you’re talking about. Too mentally ill to have an opinion. Too inexperienced for your thoughts to count. Too naïve for your hurt feelings to be worth bothering over. Too demanding. Too influenced by someone else. Too much not agreeing with me for me to listen to you.

And while I’m venting, I’d like to raise the issue of people who write erotica. We don’t imagine that all crime and horror novelists go round killing people for research. We don’t even assume they might want to. And yet so often the idea that erotica authors are obviously a bunch of depraved, amoral creatures comes up in the whole truth-fiction debate. I hear this one now and then because I write erotica under another name. Fiction is not autobiography, nor is it a declaration of intent or enthusiasm. Looking for truth in such a literal, surface way is dangerous, not least for the poor author involved. But when people are determined to write the facts off as storytelling and claim the storytelling as fact, life can be challenging.

My druidic anti-hero’s slogan was “The truth against the world.” Well world, time to see what you make of the next round.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

4 responses to “Truth and Fiction

  • Chris G.

    “Because I write fiction, everything I write can be assumed to be untrue.” It is tragic so many immediately leap to that connection. Ugh. Try being a reporter professionally and writing fantasy/fiction on the side. Oh the looks, oh the scorn, as they say.

    Interesting little tale on the concepts of truth-in-writing, and a good bit of food for thought.

    • Nimue Brown

      Hello! I can see how that would be especially awkward, with the job and people’s perceptions, and thanks for dipping in with a response.

      And thank you everyone else, lots of very important points there.

  • helgaleena

    Nimue, You are touching on something I sincerely struggled with as a member of the clergy– albeit Druid clergy which many don’t take seriously in the first place– and expressing myself through the medium of erotic fantasy. The conclusion I reached is that there is indeed a level of truth which I call moral or spiritual, to be reached only via metaphor, because it is too profound to be put into words. And metaphor requires art, either visual or poetic symbol.

    Mystics have long used the metaphor of conjugal love to express oneness with the Divine. What if this took place more literally, in the realms of myth and fantasy, in the realms of romance and and adventure? Are these themes not truth? Are they not veils for deeper appreciation of Nature itself?

    When I learned to understand the world with the eyes of Kalevala, of Khalil Ghibran, of Rumi, of the Transcendentalists, I also began to find their metaphors hidden all around us in the music and art we consider ‘mundane.’ Mythic themes are in our science fiction and fantasy literature and they can easily open mind and heart to Nature while imparting a message of love for all created things. Even facades of darkness and evil vanquished become useful in our psyches to vanquish imbalances without and within.

    Upon examination, all artistic expression will reveal an underlying moral stance. I blogged about it regarding the latest ‘Final Frontier’ tour of the heavy metal band Iron Maiden.

    This band has ethics, and a world wide following of intelligence. I think they could be Druids, if they liked. 😛

  • Argenta

    A great article, and so resonant with some of my own feelings lately. I’ve been completing a book of short fantasy stories for quite a while now, and one of the issues why I can’t seem to be done with it is the worry that people would think it was all just flights of my fancy, and have difficulty identifying. I am afraid that the truth in there is somehow too private, or expressed in too many metaphors and archetypes that it would not make any sense to others. But I guess I would never know if I don’t allow it to see the light of day.

    On the other hand, a question may also be put about what *is* truth — there are certain schools of thought that think nothing written can ever be true, since truth is reality, and reality is not made up of words, especially not those neatly ordered in sequence. So, in this sense, no literature, history, or anything else written down can be truth, but is all fiction that we create by trying to fit reality into words.

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