On wolves, sheep, and truth in fiction

A while ago, G M Barlean (author of Casting Stones, and story-telling blogger extraordinaire) mentioned in a comment to one of my posts that the nonfiction writers in her writers’ group often asked the fiction writers about truth in fiction and that the ensuing discussions generally came around to the subject of the genres of fiction. The subject has been kicking around the back of my brain ever since, so I’ve decided to post on it.

So what about the idea of truth in fiction? I mean, if a story is fiction, it follows that it isn’t true. And yet I think every fiction writer knows that every story has to contain elements of truth.

Truth has to be in there at some level or the story cannot make sense. Even if it did manage to make some sense, it wouldn’t be a very compelling story if it had little or no truth in it. This is because, if there isn’t enough truth to anchor a story to the reality of our experience, the characters and events in the story simply won’t matter to us. Example: As a child I once discovered that some neighbors had a huge cache of Superman comic books, and I went on a binge. I was young enough and unsophisticated enough in my experience of the world to initially buy into the rather shallow characters and horribly contrived plot lines. Eventually I began to see the glaring plot flaws, however, and the endless repetitiousness of the character interactions. At that point I walked away and never went back because I had just stopped caring about any of it.

So if we are to care about a story, it must contain a certain amount of truth, somewhere. Also, I think more truth generally makes stories more meaningful.

Consider the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. It’s a very old story. It’s attributed to Aesop, which takes it back to about 600 B.C.E. (How’s that for immortality?) Everyone (or almost everyone) knows the story about the shepherd boy who gives too many false warnings about a wolf menacing the flock and then isn’t believed when there really is a wolf. To “cry wolf” has come to mean to “give a false alarm.” But was there ever really an Aesop? If so, did he make this story up? Is it based on a true incident that he knew of personally, or one that he just heard about? Does any of that matter?  No: The story stands on the strength of the inherent truths it contains. We all understand, in principle, the behavior of wolves (preditors) with respect to sheep (prey). We all know about little boys who will do just about anything to gain attention or to see adults running around making fools of themselves, and we also know that when there have been too many false alarms, people may very well disregard a real one. The story is positively riddled with truth even though the incident it describes may never have actually happened. The story has become so iconic that “cry wolf” has entered the lexicon, and this is because it uses elements drawn from the real world to teach us a lesson that rings true.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf - Project Gutenberg ete...
The Boy Who Cried Wolf – Project Gutenberg etext 19994 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story wouldn’t work if the boy were standing on his head when a sheep came out of the forest and ate a wolf that wandered by, after first running around in circles whistling Dixie – because that story doesn’t contain any truth to speak of. It may be extremely creative in an off-the-wall kind of way, but  its elements just don’t connect – to each other or anything else.

I’d like to return for a moment to the image of our story-telling hunter-gatherer ancestors from my earlier post (Why we create fiction). In that post, I explained that I believe storytelling is fundamental to our nature as a species. It’s fundamental to our ability to pass our understanding of the world on to others (cultural transmission), and it’s fundamental to the nurturing of imagination and to creativity.  I’m sure it didn’t take our story-telling ancestors long to realize that stories could teach valuable life lessons and provide models for behavior. They would also have realized that, while true stories can serve this purpose, fictional ones can work just as well, provided they ring true for the listeners. And fictional stories have the advantage that you don’t have to wait around for an appropriate event to happen that will illustrate your point. So was born the fable and the parable, the epic or hero’s quest that illustrates noble behavior, and any form of mythology that seeks to explain why the world is as it is or to justify a culture’s customs, values, or beliefs. Also heir to this legacy would be any modern work of fiction that serves as a cautionary tale. (A legend, on the other hand, began life as a true story but has been embellished and tweaked to such an extent over time that its relationship to the truth has become obscure or uncertain.)

At this point I’d like to digress a little bit to talk about the relationship between history-keeping and storytelling. I just attended the first annual LitFest Pasadena this last weekend (a nice little book fair held in a Pasadena park). There was a panel discussion on “History, literature…..and the truth.” My husband and I arrived too late to hear the discussion, but since I had already been thinking about truth in literature, it jogged some more brain cells. So here goes…

It’s like this: Out of the human propensity for storytelling are sprung two broad fields of human study/endeavor: history and literature. I use both terms broadly here and don’t restrict them to written forms. “History” deals with the factual recording of past events (and other aspects of human life) for the edification of posterity and includes biographies, memoirs, journalism, and documentaries. “Literature” includes all forms of creative storytelling, from comic strips, to novels, to drama and motion pictures.

Both activities are concerned with truth, though in different ways. To put it in a nutshell:

History deals with the art of truth; Literature deals with the truth of art.

(Yeah, I know. Way too cute. Feel free to groan.) I use the word “art” here, by the way, more in the sense of artifice (something constructed) than of artistry (the creation of beauty).

History as the art of truth:  I know a bit about what historians do, since my father was a professor of English history and I currently have a college age son who is majoring in history.  There is an art/science to uncovering what is true about the past, to preserving the information, interpreting it, presenting it in an understandable and meaningful form. It is important work, and the day we cease to value it will mark the beginning of the decline of our civilization. (The majority of Americans are already far too ignorant of history – and unconcerned about the fact – for my comfort.)

Literature as the truth of art: I don’t have any specific credentials here. Mostly I’ve just experienced literature in all its many forms – what I’ve sampled of each, that is. (Remember, “art” here is the artifice of the constructed fictional story.) Basically, any story you construct has the potential to expose some truth or truths about people, life, the human condition/predicament, etc.  The more important (non-trivial) that truth is, the greater is the story’s significance. The more broadly the truth is appreciated across people of different cultures and times, the greater it’s universality.  Of course, stories are valued by humans for the entertainment they provide as well as (or instead of) for the factual information they contain (a point from my previous post), but either way, they must contain elements of truth. Authors writing solely to entertain their audiences need not be particularly concerned about things like significance or universality, but they still need settings that feel real, events that are plausible, and characters whose actions, motives, and responses are believable.

And now, finally, I’m going to get around to the subject of genre. Genre relates to the writer’s purpose, which in turn relates to the interests and expectations of the intended audience.  Writers of literary fiction are concerned with the kinds of truth that yield significance and universality (and also with artistry – the other kind of “art”; the one that means beauty in language.) This is what their audience is looking for. Writers of historical fiction that is entertainment-oriented may not be concerned with significant or universal truths, but need to be very attentive to the accuracy of its depiction of the chosen time period. Authors who write romance must focus on the inevitable convolutions of boy-meets-girl, but (presumably – I don’t read in this genre) still need plausible characters, settings, and events. Mystery writers need those things too and also have to reveal their plot in a way that keeps the reader guessing right up to the end without pulling any hat-tricks. (At least that’s what they should do if they’re doing their job right. I hate hat-tricks.)

Speculative fiction is a category that is considered to include both science fiction and fantasy. One could argue that these authors have the fewest limitations on their creativity. They can take you anywhere. They can create alien creatures, new technologies, whole future societies, or entire worlds. They can dabble in magic and the supernatural. But still, still, they need to tie their tales to truth. Even in the far future, the laws of physics must prevail (or if not, you have to plausibly explain why not.) Even in a fantasy world that is entirely your own invention, you must have characters whose actions, thoughts, and responses to events ring true.

So, you can’t get away from truth any more than you can get away from grammar. At least that’s the way I see it. What do you think?