Truth in fiction

There’s been plenty of talk lately about truth in fiction. Most recently in an article by Alexis Nowicki, in which she describes the experience of having very specific details and events from her life woven into a short story that went viral – ‘Cat Person’, by Kristen Roupenian. Roupenian has since apologised, and admits she could at least have changed the identifying details.

When I read books as a kid, and even as a young adult, I naively believed that all fiction was purely imagined, dreamed up by the writer. I was amazed at how authors could make something invented seem so true.

I was probably in my late thirties (and still a reader only) before I began to realise that writers often stole snippets or great swathes or even almost entire narratives from their own lives, or from lives around them. I discovered that one of my favourite novels around that time, The Spare Room, was actually written from a real-life experience, in which Helen Garner helped nurse a terminally ill friend until the friend passed away.

I can understand the attraction of using actual people or events in fiction. It’s a way of grounding the piece in reality, and can function as a jumping-off point. My first story written as an adult was in a workshop run by the fabulous Edwina Shaw. She urged us all to think of something important that had once happened (to us or someone close to us) then write that story. Next, she suggested, add something that didn’t ever happen.

Even then, though, I must have naturally steered away from my using my own life in fiction. Instead I wrote the story of a suicide attempt in my family’s history. I didn’t know many of the details, so even in writing this ‘real’ event, there was a great deal of fiction. I embellished on the event, as Edwina instructed. This approach definitely helped spark creativity, as well as helping me understand how horrific it must have been for everyone involved.

Now, as my short story collection nears being sent to print, I’ve been thinking about the elements of truth in my fiction – wondering what I’ve revealed of myself, or others.

There are very few straightforward truths in the narratives. I’ve never been thrown from a snowmobile. I’ve never been a teenage boy obsessed with playing guitar. I’ve never cheated on my husband. But there are realities in the smaller details, and in emotions. I have heard the sound of a goods train at night, for the past twenty-one years. Like the young girl, Lana, in Christmas Party, I was often taken to teachers’ parties as a kid in Canada, where even at the age of seven or eight, I was aware of the undercurrents of heavy flirting between adults. And like Nadine in Boxing Day, I was once in a relationship that came to feel increasingly wrong.

Despite my protestations of ‘it’s practically all fiction’, I’m sure there’s more of myself on the page than I think. Some of my attitudes or emotions or political views will have crept into stories, inevitably. It’s occurred to me that my female characters are probably better-behaved, overall, than the male characters, showing my female bias. And I’m definitely obsessed with parent-child relationships.

But I can honestly say that none of my characters are people I know. They are all completely themselves, doing good, bad and commonplace things. Their views are frequently different to mine. Their actions do not belong to me, or to anyone in my life. Part of what delights me most about writing fiction is how the characters build themselves, come to life, say and do things as if of their own accord. To me, they’re entirely new people.

Of course there are truths in fiction. But equally, from fiction comes truth.

13 thoughts on “Truth in fiction

  1. Love this post, Fi. The real autobiographical details in fiction are the ones we don’t intend, and, often, that’s the part that really speaks to readers. Even trying not to be autobiographical says much about the author. Martin Scorsese says, ‘The most personal is the most creative.’ Readers love stories where they can feel the writer’s soul. 🙂

    • Ah, that’s beautiful Louise. I truly hope readers will feel my soul in the collection. And I’m sure there is much more in there than I realise from my life – I suspect many emotions as well as a few situations that were different yet similar.
      I can’t wait to read your next book, because I know already you write with so much heart ❤️

  2. I found that essay by Nowicki really interesting, especially Roupenian’s response about not thinking the story would get accepted by the New Yorker, not even fathoming it was possible for a short story to go viral. In any ordinary circumstance, Nowicki probably never would have known about story, and almost no-one else would have either. It’s good to know if you book becomes the number-one world bestseller, no-one will be coming to accuse you of fictionalising their life!

    • It is an interesting essay, and I did feel a bit sorry for Roupenian too, because as you say, she would never have realised how widely read Cat Person would become.
      I’m not too worried about the bestseller scenario! but it did comfort me a bit when I realised none of my characters were actually concealed/disguised versions of people I know. I think I reveal myself more through settings from my life, emotions I’ve felt, even the odd line of dialogue ‘stolen’. Like Karen said in her comment above, we can’t help but bring ourselves, or lives we’ve observed, into our fiction.

  3. Beautiful piece dear Fi. And thank you for the honourable mention 😃 Big hugs from Normanton!! Workshop here tomorrow. When I first started writing most of my fiction was autobiographical, these days more and more my pieces are straight fiction, though perhaps inspired by an emotion or real life event as a starting point. Lots of love Ed xxx

    • Hello Ed in Normanton!!
      Yes, my writing has followed a similar trajectory of truth versus fiction.
      Hope the workshop tomorrow goes well and safe travels my friend! xx

  4. Thank you for this interesting article, Fiona. My writing tends to be more non fiction than fiction, and one struggle is about ‘truth-telling’ especially in narrative non fiction. The question is always, how can a writer be sure they are telling the truth, given the plasticity of the brain and the vagaries of memory.

    I had not thought about memory and the self in fiction, assuming that fiction writers construct purely imaginative pieces. Lots to think about as I wrestle with a couple of short stories.

    I can’t wait to read your collection. Mx

    • Hi Maureen, that’s a really good point you make about ‘truth’ and what that actually entails. Can there ever be a decisive truth? The family conflict that can arise from memoirs written by a single family member suggests not.
      Interesting that you, like me, assumed fiction was fiction. And yet, I would imagine it’s almost never pure fiction, just as 100% truth is likely not possible.
      All the best with your short stories!

  5. Entirely relatable reflections on truth in our writing, Fi. It can be fraught as I want to write my favourite people into books, but they aren’t very interesting if they are always nice LOL. So, I use bits here and bits there, and they become entirely different people altogether – so then I have to make sure they are not wrongly identified as someone real who has a particular quirk and is lovely!! Ah, the joys! Thanks for a thoughtful piece.

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