Yesterday someone asked me if my characters were modeled on specific people. Sometimes they are, but I’ve found that to be a sticky wicket, as they say, because people don’t often understand the difference between fiction and life. Lately this has come up a lot. My wonderful agent, Ashley Grayson, often sends food-for-thought emails to the writers he represents, and one of them recently asked whether a convicted swindler or a deep reader would be more likely to write a best-selling novel. What followed was an argument that a swindler, whose livelihood relies on “making the lie believable,” might be better able to write the best-selling novel.
There’s something in that idea, but I prefer to think of the novel as a way of getting to the deeper truths in life, the nub of things, the universal in the particular. Everything is, in the end, metaphor. One person’s real life, or a character’s fictional experiences, can speak to the greater truths. Which is why, even when a character is based on a real person, it’s not the whole of him or her. As my son wisely said the other day, it’s a particular version of that person, with certain character traits overdrawn for emphasis. So this is the lie even in the dimension of fiction that’s supposed to be true. And yet again, I can’t feel that it’s any kind of lie at all.
New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik put this beautifully in his recent article Go Giants (April 2014):
Fiction departs from the truth to intensify it. In Victorian England, there were doubtless no young gentlemen whose great expectations derived from secret funds sent by convicts who had been transported to Australia many years earlier, but Dickens’s vision of a society whose top ranks rested, without knowing it, on the labor of the very bottom one was poetically just right.
If telling the bigger truth means telling lies, then so be it. The newspaper, filled with facts, is anyway only someone’s version of the truth. In the news, we read about people, but we don’t become them. There are too many agendas involved, and we keep wearing our team jerseys while we gather the information. It’s only in fiction that we slough off our own skin for a little bit, dive into someone else’s world, and know it from the inside. The particulars are made up, but maybe that’s what gives us the permission we need to lay aside our team colors. And maybe that’s why I prefer fiction, where in the imagined, we discover the real.
Ah, the perennial search for truth. What is it? Whose is it? Where can it be best discovered? We spent hours and days and weeks and years debating these questions when I was studying philosophy for my undergraduate degree a million moons ago. Now, so much older and somewhat wiser, I talk to my children and my students about the idea of schema and context and the comprehension that depends on each. For the truth is an individual creature, nestled between our experiences and memories and wrapped around our inner beings. Morphing, changing and a different beast depending on where we are in our lives. What else would lead us to re-read a book? The “Pride and Prejudice” of my early twenties was so different in my early forties, and I expect the next time I read it, it will be new yet again.
I do not think the writer can be held accountable to define the truth of any character, as the lens through which each individual reads will define the truth for each. The lines between fictional characters and those we see inside a brief sound byte on the news are blurry…
Thank you for the thoughtful brain exercise you always provide!
“For the truth is an individual creature, nestled between our experiences and memories and wrapped around our inner beings. Morphing, changing and a different beast depending on where we are in our lives.” — How beautifully put! Thanks for that!