Saturday, April 7, 2012

Telling Truths Through Lies

Fiction writers occasionally say that they tell lies. We often see the disclaimer that "any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental." Despite this, the best fiction will depict truths about the human condition that bad fiction omits.

Some stories contain the same truths even if the facts are rearranged. Rhett Butler's disgust with Scarlet at the end of "Gone With The Wind" is the same even if her name were Ruby instead. Kenny Rogers' ballad would be as sad if Lucille were to take her love to town instead of Ruby. Or if Scarlet would pick a fine time to leave.

On one hand, consider the Parables of Jesus. He told stories about lost coins and yeast that are posed in such a way that they they don't need to be accurate recitations of events to be--by definition--gospel truth. You needn't take Jesus as your savior to derive useful meaning from the parables.

On the other hand, consider the situation in WW2 when a Nazi soldier came into a house and demanded, "Are there Jews here?" The woman living there replied, "Sure. They're hiding under the kitchen table. Can't you see them?" She uttered the literal truth, because beneath the kitchen table was a trap door that the Nazis couldn't see leading to a hiding place. Nevertheless, her literally-true reply was as misleading an outright falsehood.

This suggests a spectrum of truthiness in stories. Brute facts can be presented accurately with no truth in them. Or fantastic story elements can come together to convey higher truth.

Incidentally, the latter is my preferred mode of lying. I lament the fact that the harlot Rahab in the Bible didn't devise some clever evasion when asked if she was hiding the spies in Jericho. I like few things more than reading a Shakespearean utterance that "No man born of woman shall harm MacBeth" only to find out a little bit later that "MacDuff was from his mother's womb. Untimely ripped." Using a caesarian-section the Bard wrote a loophole.

It can be a taxing mental exercise to craft such things into one's writing, but I think it's worth the effort and I'll be delighted to see what people come up with.

We see a much more pernicious way of misleading in advertising--particularly political advertising--where half-truths are uttered without the larger context that would falsify them. Or where inconvenient facts are omitted. I've spoken of this before. But I never got around to mentioning How to Lie with Statistics.

Some years back a US President left some DNA on a girl's dress. That's a brute fact that most will stipulate as being accurate. What followed after that was called a "spin cycle" and it's more interesting, because it started a battle to assert "what does this mean." One narrative was that the DNA-on-dress clearly evidenced perjury, bad faith, and untrustworthy character on the part of the DNA-depositor. This narrative fit the facts, but a competing narrative held sway: The DNA-depositor was just acting naturally, and his accusers were dirty-minded hypocrites.

There's some truthiness in both narratives. Spin consists framing a narrative that imposes a desired significance onto brute facts.

Words written in a story have their own denotation and semantics, but what a work means transcends that. When you read something or write something, you should have a sense of "what does this mean." The writer may have one thing in mind, but the reader may have a different thing in mind. For instance, I watched a play a couple years back where the villain was a Christian with a Southern Accent. Oh, how original! Instead of passively going along with the playwright's bigotry, I decided to imagine the villain was a Bolshie community organizer with a Massachusetts accent. I recommend the practice.

The writer ought not be so heavy handed. The viewer will identify good guys and bad guys, and then map them to  categories s/he finds comfortable. Maybe you LIKE Bolshies, and HATE Baptists. Fine. The smart writer will put neither a red star on the hero's hat nor a Bible in his hand. Or maybe both.

Heroic valor and greedy fecklessness are as easily found in Bolshies as in Baptists. Or Scarlet, or Ruby or Lucille.


  1. I'm not sure I agree. Surely the character's background, their origin, religion, political stance, have a lot of bearing on their motivation and how they think. I think the writer needs to know all that, and while you may not explicitly tell the reader, it's bound to show through to some extent in their actions.

    Of course, there's no need to choose 'good' and 'bad' groups for your protagonists and villains: if anything, it's probably a good idea to under-represent such stereotypes. But like you say, any group of people can include lovely and horrible people. I don't think the reader needs to fill in their favourite villain: If they do love Bolshies, it's just that much more of a challenge to make them dislike yours.

    I'd say, let your characters have their ideals and origins, but mix things up.

    For instance, my current novel is about vampires, and since they're immortal, I have characters from loads of times and places coexisting. I have (amongst others) a Viking, a Barbary corsair, a Maasai warrior, a Georgian-era Englishman, a 6th century BC Persian, an Ancient Greek former slave, and a stunningly beautiful (modern) Argentine.
    I couldn't write any of them properly without knowing that, but, if I tell you that the Greek is the main character, who would you guess are the bad guys? It's probably not all the ones you'd expect.

  2. You are absolutely correct that a character's background, etc. have a bearing on how they think. Yet there are aspects of the human condition that transcend them. A Christian Theistic philosophy of Mathematics will be much less positivistic than an Marxist Atheistic one, but both parties will balance their checkbooks the same way.

    The trick is to write in such a way that your own background doesn't get in the way.

    It is devilishly easy to create strawmen when depicting "the other." Let's suppose you voted for a Republican in the last election. I suggest it's easier for you to depict any of those other characters--Viking, corsair, etc.--than a Democrat running against your pick. Or vice versa.

    1. That's definitely true, about not letting your background get in the way.

      I'm not sure what you're trying to say about creating strawmen. I don't have any aversion to modern characters, and I have plenty even in this novel. It is difficult sometimes to not put your own views into your choice of characters, but you have to do your best.

      I'm not really sure now what it is you're saying. Is it that you think it's not important to show who the character is, and it might detract from the story? That's what I got to start with, and that's what I disagree with. There might be plenty of things that are common to everyone, but for more than a walk-on part, surely you have to know the character pretty intimately, and how intimate can you be with someone without having at least some inkling of their background or their views? I don't see how you could write convincingly about a character without paying some attention to their individual motivation.

      To me, making sure my background doesn't get in the way means making sure I don't rule out a Tory as protagonist, or write more sympathetically about a Labour supporter. I wouldn't try to write either character as though they had no political view.

    2. It is very important to show who the character is and not some caricature distorted by our prejudices. I'm all in favor of depicting modern characters, but they come with this risk. Can you depict a sympathetic Nazi? Can you think from within that frame? Do you want to? God forbid. We can all depict Nazi villains, and we risk creating straw men when we do. If you're depicting an intensely political Tory, a Tory reader should look at the depiction and say, "that's fair." The writer ought not to take sides. That's hard. And I think we agree at this point.

      Not everyone is equally political. Just as not everyone is equally religious. Happily, not all characters are political and religious. When people hold opinions very strongly, those opinions are often the source of conflict. Conflict is good. It makes the story interesting. Nevertheless, when the conflict is clearly partisan, the readership is taking sides. Danger. Safer to make the conflict less polarizing.

      In my work in progress, one conflict is between Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes. It's nothing to do with politics or religion, just big brother and little brother being competitive as siblings will. Mycroft wants something kept hidden from Sherlock. And Sherlock is bound to penetrate his secrets. Thus Mycroft must keep secret any inkling that there is a secret...

  3. I have done a sympathetic Nazi or two, in fact. It wasn't in anything I intend to actually write, though; just a story I made up for myself. And yes, actually, I did very much want to. It was an interesting challenge.

    I think I understand you now. In the original post it sounded like you were saying that you shouldn't let your characters have any motivation, not just cautioning against making it too strong in case it got in the way.

  4. Getzel Rubashkin (@journeyman_web)April 11, 2012 at 12:23 PM

    To your suggestion that the audience or reader adapt details to their liking:
    Insistence that the reader stay true to the lies of the author strikes me as absurd. Authors can be, and often are, the obstacle to truly enjoying their own work, particularly in prequels or sequels by introducing elements into the work they've created that interfere with an otherwise enjoyable experience. To insist that the audience take all or nothing is to confuse fiction with nonfiction.
    That being said, ideally you trust the author of the work you are enjoying enough to go along for the ride and see if you agree with where it takes you afterwards.
    On the larger point of the truth in fiction:
    Reading is consumption no less than eating, and the same care given to the ingredients and source of our food ought to be given to our media intake. Your body processes everything you feed it, and so do your mind and heart - however you label it, nonfiction or otherwise.
    Fiction delivers its messages very deeply, packaged as they are in pleasant stories. For the same reason we often accept those messages without proper reflection. Respect fiction's power and consume accordingly.


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