Thursday 28 March 2013

Guest Blog: The Truth in Fiction

Pic from Halloween Mart
I've just seen a group of monks dancing with teenage girls in Oxford Street.  
Fictitious rubbish I hear you say.  But no, it's the cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die truth.  If I tell you they were Hare Krishna monks, you might be more convinced.
My online novella, The Author’s Song, is a story about a musician. It's pure fiction.  In any chapter I could have her win the lottery, be elected prime minister or meet a god and find herself spirited to the top of Mount Olympus.  But none of those things are going to happen.  She will keep her feet firmly on terra firma.  I have devised a whole series of completely realistic trials for her.  And I know exactly how she will react to each one.
This is the truth in fiction.  This is, in my view, the rigour and the fun of it – a thing that both the reader and the writer must share.
When Tolstoy finally threw Anna Karenina under the wheels of a train, we, as readers had to believe that she was capable of suicide. A train appears as a violent and threatening image right at the beginning of the book. Tolstoy spent the whole book working her character, so that when the final act is committed, we believe in that act, we have sympathy for her and thus we are even more horror-struck.
I use my instinct to decide whether something is realistic enough. When I write fiction, it isn't true, but it might be. That intuition is, I suspect, partly memory, and partly my take on how the world works. But my own schema, like yours, is coloured by prejudice.  We all believe that what's gone before will happen again.  This is dangerous ground for the novelist; it can lead to cliché.  But challenge a reader’s expectations too often and the story will be unbelievable. In fiction surprises need to be used sparingly like adjectives or hot chilli sauce.
My writing group sometimes comment on very small details. They say things like, a woman like that would never wear flatties, or he would surely offer to pay for the drinks.  I quite like it when they do make those sorts of observations because I know that they have developed some empathy for the character. If I test my readers too often with weird events, too much coincidence or strings of incongruity, they won't believe me when the unexpected does occur.
The monks I saw in Oxford Street were dressed from head to toe in orange; they played tambourines and carried banners emblazoned with the words of their Krishna chant.  As I pushed past I noticed that one of them, the boy who was dancing the most happily, had a wooden leg.
You can probably guess which part of that last sentence was made up.  But, could it be the start of a good story?

Since attending Emily’s blogging course Wendy Shillam has started writing an online novella and an urban gardening blog,


Rita Barzo said...

I can relate to this piece a lot and I love how you have used Anna Karenina as an example of how the author has to convince us that she is capable of jumping under a train. I am currently writing a collection of short stories which are full of nonsensical events but if I lay down the concrete road for the characters to travel on then perhaps I can get away with it..who knows. Thanks for this piece, I am putting it in my scrap book of helpful writing points!

Wendy Shillam said...

Thanks for your kind comment. I shall look forward to those short stories. Keep feet on ground and head in clouds. Isn't that the expression?

Anonymous said...

Wendy, what pulls me up short in a story is incongruity. I give myself over to the author at the start of the story and nothing breaks that trust as when the character does something that does not fit. I am trying to think of an example without success, but all to often I find myself thinking, "But they wouldn't do that!" My husband gets particularly peeved when I do it out loud at the television!

Shop Girl said...

All so true! It completely breaks the spell when a character does something uncharacteristic.

And I'm always quite surprised in my writing group when they say things like, 'but that's not like her' about a fictional character I've written - I think, wow, they actually believe in her :)

Great post Wendy!