Truth in Fiction

Posted by Beth Miles

“What you are about to read…really did happen to me…or maybe it didn’t…I’m not sure…but it doesn’t matter…because it’s true!”

            — Daisy Fay Harper (Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man, by Fannie Flagg)

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           In Fannie Flagg’s book, Daisy Fay Harper is an eleven year-old narrator who spouts a story so comically sad, so outlandish—yet so emotionally realistic, it can only be fiction.  But Daisy Fay is right.  Her story is true… it’s true in voice, in character, and it’s true to the 1950’s time period.  It gives us such a believable glimpse of a strong personality in that decade, it makes you wonder if the story was based on the author’s own life. 

            So, should you be autobiographical in your “truth” while crafting your fiction story?  In my opinion, it certainly can’t hurt.  “Write what you know” has been repeated at every writer’s conference I’ve been to and is a much more pleasant technique (for me, anyway) than research.  If you’re a person who plunges into home improvement or new technology without reading the instructions because they’re a hassle, then for sure, write what you know.  You probably aren’t the type to enjoy research.  Even if you end up doing extensive research, you can still have pitfalls in relaying the absolute truth, especially while gathering information on something you’ve never experienced.  For example, many authors think they understand the use of the word “y’all,” but it’s painfully obvious they’re unfamiliar with southern slang when this contraction of “you” and “all”  is used to refer to only one person. (Yes, this is a pet peeve.)  Be true to time and place through research, but be true to authenticity by writing what you know.

            And what about being true to your character’s age?  At the beginning of Flagg’s book, Daisy Fay is eleven, the same age as the MC in my current WIP.  In crafting my middle grade manuscript, I felt confident that I was getting the personality of an eleven-year-old right because I work at a middle school, and actually feed and clothe my own personal one at home.  Turns out I needed lots of help.  My critique group pointed out that this MC used words that sounded precocious, even though they were reasonable to my mind’s ear.  I also found myself struggling with what I wanted this character to do.  Would she be allowed to do these things at eleven?  The story stagnated until I changed her age to fourteen.  I’ve since realized this might be because my own inner-child is about fourteen.  The change deepened the authenticity and believability of my core character.  Be true to your character’s age and experience level and be true to your inner-child.

            The miracle of “Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man” is that Daisy Fay stays true in voice, even though she ages six years during the course of the novel.  Because authentic voice is considered by many writers to be the hardest aspect of writing, and certainly the most difficult to preserve during extensive character maturation, I’m a fan of anyone who can keep it intact.   For me, a true voice overrides most other aspects of the story, including plot, because true voice makes a memorable character.  What do you remember most about Forrest Gump?  That he had braces on his legs, went to Vietnam, was the ping-pong champion of the world, etc.? Or do you remember that throughout the entire story, he never said anything that wasn’t “Forrest-like.”  Be true to your character’s voice no matter how much they grow and your audience will be true to you.

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6 thoughts on “Truth in Fiction

  1. What I find thought-provoking about your post, Beth, is your experience of needing others to help you hear your character’s true voice. As writers, we may think that we know our character inside and out – but how many times do we let what we know drive our character rather than letting it shape our charcter so she can have her own experiences? It often takes an objective eye to see where we slip up and insert our own voice.

    • When I started working on my MG fantasy novel, I figured I’d have it made because, you know–it’s fantasy. Wrong. If anything, it’s more difficult to create my own world because I’m trying so hard to make it other-wordly that I get stuck over things like what names to use for the most common things. Sure, write what I know–but I don’t know any tiny winged unicorns. The trick, I’m learning, is to fold what I know into the fantasy so it has a powerful reality that speaks to young people. I may not know winged unicorns, but I do know about growing up different from other kids. I know what it’s like to be called names, to be bullied, to doubt my own worth. There IS truth in fiction, and therein lies its power.

  2. Truth is bound inside every great story, I think. And we all love a great story. Whether it’s improvised at bedtime or our /magnus opus/ of 2000 pages, we love story.

    So, I think I just have to be sure my “story” doesn’t get lost in my efforts to write well. If the story is compelling and believable then, hopefully, the truth will echo throughout it.

    Thanks for the examples and reminders, Beth.

    Jean

  3. Great post, Beth. The concept of “writing what I know” helped me jump into my first novel. Once I accepted this the words flowed from me onto the page. The feelings poured into prose. It helped me overcome my fear of such a grand writing project. Now I look forward to the Mudskippers helping me to work on character and continue to mold it into something more!

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