Saturday, November 2

Truth in Fiction: The Importance of Honesty

Truth in Fiction: The Importance of Honesty


Today I want to explore the importance of honesty in writing. First, though, let's look at dishonesty and its effects. That's right! We're going to talk about politicians.

An Example of the Importance of Truth-Telling: Politics


I’m a politics nerd and, over the years, have watched many politicians evade reporters’ questions. To a certain extent, this mild dishonesty goes with the territory. You’ve probably heard the old joke:

Question: How do you know if a politician is lying?
Answer: Are their lips moving?

But, occasionally, a politician's evasiveness, their disingenuousness, goes over the top and voters lose faith. Let me give you a couple of examples of the kind of evasiveness I mean. (In a moment I'll talk about how dialing up a character's honesty or dishonesty can influence how readers feel about them.)

Example 1 out of 2


I’m not going to mention the politician’s name because that’s not important. Let’s call him Joe.

Joe was asked an obnoxious question. I’m paraphrasing here, but he was asked if he had been inappropriate with any of the young people who had been in his charge before he entered public life.

There is absolutely no reason to think this was the case, so it was a cheeky question, an offensive question, and the way Joe answered made it clear he was hostile to the questioner. And, absolutely, it would be difficult NOT to be hostile to someone who implied that you were using your position to exploit the children who were in your care.

That said, I found myself not liking Joe as much. The fascinating thing, to me, was that even though I believed Joe and thought the reporter's question was obnoxious, the reporter somehow came out looking better than Joe. After all, just as politicians are often less than candid, reporters ask insulting questions, it's part of their job.

The Takeaway: Applying this to Writing


Even though I one hundred percent believe Joe answered the reporter’s question honestly, the WAY he answered it made him seem dishonest.

Why was this?

Here’s what I think. Putting this in terms of Story the reporter was the protagonist of that particular scene.

As you know, the protagonist is the person who the reader or viewer identifies with, So the question is: Why did I view the reporter as the protagonist? What made me do that?

I think it was because the reporter was the most active one in the exchange between the two men. Also, I viewed the reporter as having a clear goal; namely, to 'encourage' the politician to be candid, to say what he really thought, so that his fellow citizens could figure out who to vote for.

After all, if I don't know what a person thinks, what goals they have, what ideals we share, then I don't really know THEM, the person. All I know is their mask, the persona they have crafted.

Example 2 out of 2


The same anonymous politician, Joe, was asked another question, one much less obnoxious than the first.

Joe was asked whether he had tried to set right a particular wrong, one he had admitted to committing. Joe didn't answer the question, instead he made a completely unrelated political statement.

Joe’s response made him seem dishonest. Why? Because I thought he COULD HAVE answered the question without any major political fallout. He could have said, “No, because …” and given his reasons for not doing it. Or he could have said, “Yes, I thought it was important for me to do that because …”

Joe probably would have gotten some flack either way, but I think he suffered MORE for not being open and honest.

The Takeaway: Applying this to Writing


If you want readers to be drawn to your character, to think he or she is the kind of person the reader could respect and be friends with, keep these two things in mind:

a. Have the character tell the truth.

b. Have the character tell the truth in an extremely difficult situation.

(b) is the key. Anyone can tell the truth if there are no consequences for doing so. But if, at least in your character’s mind, there could be a terrible price to pay, then it really means something when they refuse to lie.

Conversely, if you want another character -- perhaps your antagonist -- to look shady, untrustworthy, then have him or her tell the truth in easy situations but lie when the stakes go up.

The Truth in Fiction


Stephen King, in On Writing, tells us that even in fiction, there is a core of truth.

Sure, the town you're writing about doesn’t exist. Sure, the characters are imaginary but, at the story’s core, is a truth.

For instance, in Stephen King’s IT, I would say that the core truth is that we -- humans -- are stronger together. We can best the human bullies as well as the monsters that lurk in the darkness. We need to be our authentic self, we need to trust each other and work together. We need to accept each other in all our weird wacky messiness and cooperate to accomplish a goal.

If we do all that we MAY succeed ... occasionally.

Be Honest


This is the most important thing and, really, what this post is all about. Remember: No one is going to see your Zero Draft (I sometimes call this the vomit draft[link]).

Honesty is difficult because it makes us uncomfortable, it exposes who we are and so opens us up to the possibility of rejection. That fear of rejection causes anxiety.

If I tell my friend that she does something that irritates me (for example, showing up late) my friend may become angry and end our relationship. Despite the risks I think that telling the truth in real life is worth it.

But you might think: Karen, you're talking about fiction here, isn't it different?

I think the same principle applies. I think that telling the truth in fiction AS YOU SEE IT is absolutely essential.

Why is this? Here's my explanation: Truthfulness meshes with the world in a way that its opposite does not. If I am honest about what makes me happy, sad, angry, frustrated, and so on, then -- because we are all much like each other -- my readers can relate to these experiences. This is what Stephen King refers to as the truth within the lie.

I'd be interested what you think about this. Do you agree? Disagree?

NaNoWriMo


If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, good luck!

How many words have you written so far? I have 14 pages of (longhand) notes where I wrote ... how can I describe it? Word jazz. I brainstormed arcs, main characters, how the arcs intersect, and so on.

Today I need to sit down and write about 5,000 words. I'll check back in with you in my next post.

Thanks for reading, and good writing!

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