Heroes, Villains, and the Narratives We Tell

Something has been bothering me lately. I’ve noticed an increase in the use of the word narrative outside of literary contexts, specifically to describe the stories people tell themselves, and others, to explain or justify their beliefs or actions. I find this gratifying, in a sense, because it supports what I’ve said in the past about the importance of storytelling to our species. I think storytelling is probably as old as human language and I’ve written about how it is the root of both the field of history, which is factual, and the imaginative art of fiction. What I’m coming to understand now, however, is that mental narratives may in fact be fundamentally important to how we make sense of our world.

Events can be complicated, subtle, or obscure, with conflicting facts that push our understanding in different, or even opposite, directions. Because we don’t like to be confused or uncertain, we try to establish a thread that winds around and connects the facts to form a coherent narrative. And then we tend to pull the thread straighter. We try to make the story clearer or simpler – or more pleasing. In the process we edit it, dropping facts that don’t fit the narrative, or embellish it by adding presumptions that fill in gaps, or even pseudo-facts that make it a better story – one that’s more impressive, more emotionally satisfying, or that presents us (or other people involved) in a better light. This process would be fundamentally dishonest if we did it consciously. But the fact is, we often aren’t very aware of what we’re doing. We’re not paying attention to the process.

There’s probably a purpose to the construction of edited mental narratives – an evolutionary function – as there is to most of the strange but commonplace features of our thought process. It may contribute to how we maintain a positive attitude and self-image, how we keep our hopes and dreams alive, how we find our purposes and rally each other to our causes when we tell our narratives to others. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, this may not have been a problem: Life was short and there were no fact checkers. In the modern world, things get more complicated.

Basically, I think we all need to be more aware of our tendency to edit our perceptions of reality.

Being a fiction writer causes me to worry about the effect that fictional narratives may have on the thought processes of readers (or movie-goers). Creators of fiction construct their works in a very conscious way, of course. Assuming we’re not bent on probing the ambiguities of the human soul, this usually means we’re in the business of creating heroes and villains (among other things). To give our characters depth, we know it’s a good idea to give the hero a flaw or two and to give the villain a back-story that explains his or her motivations. But all of that aside, the nitty-gritty of character development mostly involves showing good guys being good and bad guys being bad. And our readers (or movie viewers) immerse themselves in our fictional narratives. They come prepared to buy into stories – at least for the duration – that are prime examples of “edited” narratives designed to be good stories, to be clear, dramatic, emotionally satisfying, etc.

And the thought keeps nagging me: Are fiction writers showing people how to edit their real-life narratives? Are we teaching people how to make storybook heroes and villains out of people in the real world? Further, are we giving people emotional practice in loving their heroes and hating their villains?

Looking for the good in people can be a positive thing, but seeing people as heroes of fictional stature is unrealistic. No one is that perfect, and we shouldn’t expect, much less demand, that people always be right or always be in the right. Hero worship can lead to getting conned, or following the wrong leader. The same thing goes for those – both individuals and groups – that we might seek to cast as villains. Vilification is easy to do, especially if you know the tropes and have become insulated from the facts. Hating people can be very emotionally satisfying, too, but it’s actually quite rare for people to be genuinely or completely evil. We need to be both critical, and forgiving, of ourselves and of our fellow human beings.

I’m not suggesting that writers are to blame for the polarization of our society. Our current poisonous political climate has many contributing causes. What I’m wondering is whether creators of fiction might inadvertently be feeding it when we take the easy path by setting up black-and-white moral situations or casually creating larger-than-life heroes or villains for readers to either love or hate. It’s worth considering whether writers – especially of the more popular genres – might actively work to make things better by humanizing their characters and creating conflicts that are morally more complex. Stories need protagonists, but does every story need a villain to be emotionally satisfying? Might it be just as powerful to watch an antagonist (or protagonist if there are no antagonists) come to understand his or her error and find redemption? What if more writers made a point of celebrating the act of realizing and admitting that one is wrong? Might that help to make a better world?

That’s it, basically. As always, tell me what you think. What about your own favorite fictional heroes and villains? Or ones that you have created?

I should take a moment to analyze the characters I created in my recently released first novel, Gift of Chance. These characters evolved over a long period of time and well before I started thinking about the content of this post. I’m guilty of creating, in Nagaro, a hero with a well-developed moral compass who rarely makes serious mistakes. He’s a bit of a paragon. In my defense, he is also a thinking man, one who critically examines and worries about his own actions and those of others. I perhaps did a little better on villains. There is no single villain whose actions create a central conflict that is resolved only upon his/her defeat. There are several minor characters who act as villains for a limited purpose and who I made no effort to humanize. There are more characters, however, who are mixed. They may begin by acting badly but come to a better place in the end, or their histories, once revealed, cast them in a more sympathetic light.

Concept vs Execution in Fiction

Any productive creative effort consists of concept and execution. Concept is, of course, the idea behind the thing, the description of it, or the mental image that we have of what the thing is meant to be. Execution is what happens when we try to actually produce the thing, as in: “His execution of the dive was flawless”. Or it is the final fleshed-out form of the thing, as in: “While the architect’s vision for the building was sound, the execution is marred by awkward flaws.”

And my point, of course, is that concept and execution can be either good or bad (or so-so) independently of each other. The overall value or quality of any creation derives from the interplay between concept and execution, in ways that vary depending on the field or medium involved. Some creative fields are more concept-driven, some less, and different crafts and art-forms may be more or less tolerant of inexpert execution depending in part on the audience.

So, how does this relate to fiction writing?

Fiction covers a lot of territory and so does the relative importance of concept and execution in fiction. If you’re writing literary fiction, you’d better have top-notch execution. For genre fiction, this can be less important. Some genre fiction readers are very forgiving as long as the story contains the genre-specific tropes and elements they’ve come to enjoy. The importance of concept to readers also varies. Science fiction readers may demand something truly new in the concept department, whereas readers of mystery or romance – or even literary fiction – may not really care about that. How much readers of any stripe care about concept versus execution depends basically on the extent to which they read to get new thoughts and ideas versus reading for the experience of reading. And of course, they may be after both. But the one place where concept really trumps execution is in getting agents and publishers to look at a manuscript from an unknown author, which is something I find a bit problematic.

It can be a little hard to say exactly where a fiction manuscript’s concept leaves off and its execution begins. The core of the concept consists pretty much of what can be fitted into the infamous “elevator speech” – the nutshell-sized description that’s used to “sell” the manuscript to an agent or a publisher. One might extend concept to include the set of plot points that go into a synopsis or outline of the story, although this begins to grade into execution. Any sample pages or chapters that may be allowed as part of a submission clearly speak to execution, but they really provide only a glimpse of it. The truth is that execution consists not only of the quality of the writing, and things like “voice” that one might see in a sample chapter, but actually includes all the word choices and phrasing, and all of the details of how the writer has chosen to unfold the story – from beginning to end. Basically, execution is the whole thing, and the only way an agent or acquisition editor can fully assess the execution of a work is to read the entire manuscript – which isn’t going to happen unless they’re “sold” on the concept. In fact, I’m willing to bet that a lot of agents don’t even look at the synopsis, let alone the writing sample, if the first paragraph of the query letter doesn’t “grab” them.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why this is so: there are just too many manuscripts. Agents are inundated, and they just don’t have time to read everything that comes their way. Plus, they really shouldn’t take on manuscripts they don’t think they can sell to equally busy and concept-oriented acquisitions editors. Still, it means there’s a possibility of works being passed up that are well-executed but have ordinary-sounding or hard-to-pin-down concepts. This is clearly a loss for those readers who value the experience of reading a rich, nuanced, and well-crafted tale, over the whiz-bang of nutshell novelty. (You can guess where my preferences lie.)

There are people – agents and others – who argue that the essence of any novel ought to be reducible to one or two brief sentences. I simply disagree. Consider these two familiar works in the fantasy genre: Alice in Wonderland, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Both works have essentially the same core concept: A young girl is transported to a magical land where she has a series of adventures before managing to get home again. Yet these two works are in no sense the same story, and in fact could hardly be more different in execution.  I could easily add a few choice details to the nutshell description that would tell you instantly which book it represented, but that’s not the point. To begin with, the plot of Alice in Wonderland is scarcely important in capturing the work. How could I convey the cleverness of Lewis Carroll’s wordplay, or the book’s wild non-sequiturs? The Wizard of Oz is more conventional in its plot-reliance, but simply stating the elements of that plot hardly captures the charm and nuance of L. Frank Baum’s classic tale.

To be honest, I first became aware of how much traditional publishing is biased towards concept years ago when I tried querying book one of The Nagaro Chronicle. That discovery is one reason why I’ve opted for independent publication. My work’s strength lies in its execution. Producing a short, plot-based, nutshell description of the first book that made it sound in any way unique or special proved challenging to the point of exasperation.

So what are your thoughts? As a reader, where do you come down with respect to concept and execution? If you’re a writer, where does your own work fall?

Reward and Punishment in Fiction Writing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStories need conflict. This generally means that things must go wrong for the protagonist before they go right. But how far wrong? Bad things must happen, but how many bad things must there be to earn something good? And just exactly how bad must the bad things get?

There is no single simple answer to this, basically because people – readers and writers, both – vary widely in their tolerance for punishment. The characters in stories similarly vary widely in how much they can take, depending on what attributes and resources they’ve been given. The context of any given adverse event varies as well. The death of a character’s mother, for example, might become anything from a life-shattering tragedy to a bittersweet farewell, or even a welcome relief – depending on the context and on the character.

Readers obviously get to know what to expect from different authors and can deal with the reward vs punishment issue by simply choosing what they read. I recently wrapped up the second of two linked fantasy trilogies by Robin Hobb – involving Fitz and the Fool, if you know her work – with a sigh of relief because I realized that Hobb’s punishment/reward ratio is really a bit out of my personal comfort zone. Robin Hobb is a superb writer. Anyone inclined to look down on genre fiction in general, or fantasy in particular, should try some of hers. But she’s awfully hard on poor Fitz in those six books. And it isn’t just physical pain and suffering, either, there are also the mistakes the character makes, the choices that lead predictably to bad consequences, the way other characters are forever being angry with him and blaming him for things. I did enjoy those two trilogies, but I would have enjoyed them more if they were a bit less harrowing – or if Hobb had put in a bit more reward to balance all the punishment.

And this is an important point: Punishment from a reader’s perspective can come in many different forms, as can reward. External events that are outside the character’s control are only the most obvious source of reward and punishment. The decisions a character makes are another source. Are they reasonably intelligent given what the character knows? And are they well-intentioned? Or are they manifestly unwise or self-serving? How the character responds to events is yet another source of punishment and reward that is equally as important as the events themselves. I can put up with a lot of beatings and setbacks if the character displays what I consider to be positive attributes. Is the character tolerant, honest, and altruistic? Or is he judgmental, deceitful, and selfish? Does he admit to and accept responsibility for his mistakes? Does he show kindness? Moral courage? Suffering can be ennobling if borne with grace and fortitude. In short, there are a lot of ways to give me rewards as a reader while still having the hero up to his neck in hot water.

What should one do as a writer, given the range of reader tolerance? Staying true to your own natural inclinations is one option, on the theory that there will be readers out there who will respond favorably. Of course, there will also be readers who don’t. Doubtless there are readers who think Robin Hobb is spot-on, and others who think her writing is too tame. Trying to shape one’s writing to fit the intended audience is another possibility, especially for beginning writers, and especially if you find that you are way out one extreme or the other of the tolerance curve.

So what’s your personal tolerance for punishment when you read? Are your criteria for judging punishment similar to mine, or different? If you’re a writer, how do you balance reward and punishment in your work – or do you just not think about it?

Lessons in the Past Perfect 6: Flexibility and Control

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPeople experience life as events in time – present, past, and hypothetical future. To me, being able to clearly define the temporal relationships of events in a story is essential for effective storytelling. And verb tenses are part of what we use to do that. That’s why you need to be skillful with verb tenses if you want to be a skilled writer. You want to master the full arsenal of verb tenses so you can use the best one for every situation. And you want to be able to shift tenses at will to reveal information in the most effective order. This is how to achieve control over your readers’ experience of the temporal aspects of your story.

English has a lot of verb tenses. Not all of the variants are time-related, either. Some indicate conditional or hypothetical situations, like the ones that use “would,” “could,” or “should.” Consider the following, which my linguistics prof in college said was about as complicated as it can get:

Well, he should have been being paid.

That’s five words that are part of the verb, everything after “he.” It’s complicated, but we understand it. We also understand that it’s different from all of the following:

He should be being paid.
He should have been paid.
He is being paid.
He was being paid.
He was paid.
He has been paid.
He had been paid.
He had been being paid.
He would have been paid.
He will be paid.
He will have been being paid.

That’s not even all the possibilities. The point is that a writer should be able to use whichever tense best serves his or her purpose. I think people are pretty clear that the addition of “being” makes the action “progressive” – that is, in this case more than one payment is involved, ongoing over some period of time. That period could be in the past, present, or future. Without “being,” the reader is justified in assuming that only one payment is involved. People understand that “is” means present, “was” means past, and “will be” means future. “Should” and “would” or “could” tell us that the payment didn’t actually happen, or hasn’t happened yet – that it is in some way hypothetical. The “perfect” tenses represent completed (perfected) action. “Has been paid” is present perfect: the action is completed, but recently enough to be viewed as part of present events. “Had been paid” is past perfect, the action having been completed in a time period preceding whatever might be considered present events. Past perfect is used specifically when that distinction is needed: an action was completed prior to whatever is happening now. “Will have been paid” is future perfect. There is some future time from the perspective of which the payment will be in the past. Example? “By the time we next meet, you will have been paid for your services.” Which is distinctly different from: “When next we meet, you will be paid for your services.” The temporal relationships between the meeting and the payment are different in those two cases, and you wouldn’t use one if you meant the other.

I know I harp a lot on the past perfect. It’s because it’s frequently given the cold shoulder these days and I’m always disappointed when I stumble over a spot where a writer should have used it but didn’t. Past perfect is important in fiction because past-tense narration is the most common approach to storytelling. If your current storyline is told in past tense, you need the past perfect to distinguish events that occurred prior to the current storyline. Apparently it throws some aspiring writers for a loop, though: they’re used to using the simple past tense for past events, or they hear some editors say the past perfect should be avoided because too many had’s are cumbersome and repetitious. So they think they can do without it. The result sometimes is temporal mush.

Consider this simple thought:

Jake was paid in local currency. He preferred Galactic Credits.

In a past-tense narrated story, we can assume that Jake’s preference for Galactic Credits is an ongoing state of affairs – at least in the absence of any more specific information. He does prefer, has preferred, and probably always will prefer to be paid in Galactic Credits. (Preferences tend to be like that.) But the first sentence could mean at least four different things depending on the context:

1) In the course of the unfolding story, a point has been reached where Jake gets paid once for something and the payment is in local currency.
2) Jake gets paid in local currency on a regular basis during the time period of the story. (He’s on a salary.)
3) There was a single instance in the past when Jake was paid for something in local currency.
4) There was some period of time in the past when Jake was regularly paid in local currency.

Of course there would normally be context, and context can go a long way:

Three weeks crawled by and Jake finally got paid for the job. He was paid in local currency. Jake preferred Galactic Credits, but here on Chalcion you took what you could get. (case 1)

Or:
Back on Regulus, Jake worked in the shipyards. He was paid in local currency then. Jake preferred Galactic Credits. Life here on Chalcion was good. (case 4)

In these two examples I deliberately didn’t use verb tense for clarification. I stuck to the simple past tense. The result is a bit “flat,” temporally speaking, but you can figure out the meaning from the time tags and other clues that I’ve added. (Note that it’s only “here on Chalcion” that pins the first example down as being current ongoing action. Otherwise it’s just an assumption that this is the case, since simple past is the default for current action in past-tense narration.) In the second example, “back” and “then” tell you that the local currency payments were in the past relative to the current action. “Here on Chalcion” implies that he is now being paid in Galactic Credits.

If you’re not afraid to use other verb tenses, you can get away without time tags altogether:

When he’d been working in the shipyards on Regulus Jake had been paid in local currency. He preferred Galactic Credits. Life on Chalcion was good.

The point isn’t that using time tags is bad. In fact, you can use a mixture of time tags and verb tenses in a paragraph for clarity and variety. And that’s my point. With the other verb tenses at your disposal, you have more alternatives for achieving clarity – or grace, or emotional impact, or whatever. That’s flexibility. After all, having to constantly repeat your time tags can get just as cumbersome and repetitious as too many had’s.

The past perfect tense also gives you more flexibility in how you reveal things. You can slip back and forth between present and past effortlessly without confusing your reader. You’re not tied to telling events in the order they occur:

She walked from room to room, treading evenly and taking inventory of the spaces and furnishings until she came to the last bedroom at end of the hall, at the top of the stairs. She stepped over the threshold and instantly she knew. She had not realized what she’d been missing until that moment. The room was alive; she could feel it. The living room and parlor, kitchen and dining room, below, the other bedrooms along the upstairs hall; all were perfect, tidy, pristine. But they had felt dust-dry, hollow, as she passed through them. Empty as husks. Only here in this room, with its worn oak furniture and faded curtains and ancient writing desk, was there a fullness, something still green, a sense of her husband’s spirit.

Try doing that passage justice without the past perfect tense. The past perfect lets me wait until after she’s entered the last room to tell you what was different about her experience of the other rooms, then shift back, and back again, in a blink. And I can do this with perfect clarity (I hope) within a paragraph where my focus is on emotional impact.

And that is enough about the past perfect. (Collective sigh of relief, I’m sure.)

Does Genre Fiction Need a Theme?

I’ve read and heard a lot of advice to writers over the years, and the word “theme” has cropped up a number of times. It was listed, for example, among the things that should be found in the first two pages of your story. Really? I mean, I’ve always associate the idea of having a theme with fiction of the more literary sort, but I write genre fiction. I kept wondering; does genre fiction need to have a theme?

I think the short answer is no. All genre fiction has to do to be successful with readers is to meet the expectations of the sub-group of readers who read books of that particular genre. And if those readers don’t expect a theme, then you don’t need to have one. A mystery is a story-puzzle wrapped around some hopefully interesting characters. Theme needed? No. A romance doesn’t need any other theme besides the obvious one of romantic love that defines the genre. Fantasy readers expect to be transported beyond the boundaries of their mundane existence, and science fiction readers are looking for a provocative “what if” to bend their minds. Conclusion? Genre stories don’t need no stinkin’ theme!

So why am I writing this? Because I’m a natural-born worry-wart and my brain wouldn’t put the idea down. And the thing is, when I took a hard look at my seven-book fantasy series, The Nagaro Chronicle, with the theme-idea in mind, darned if I didn’t find some! This, even though I hadn’t set out to put one in. The Chronicle follows its main character, Nagaro, across ten years of his life, and he’s a man with a destiny who doesn’t know it. Something had to drive the character, so I made sure there were things that mattered to him – things like honor and using his gifts to do good in the world – and these concepts became threads that are now integral to the character and his story. They run throughout the entire series. And I think the series is the better for it.

I’m not saying that having a theme turns my work into great literature, but it does provide a cohesiveness, perhaps a little more depth, and a feeling of enhanced meaning. It also contributes to the work’s unique flavor and finally gives me a nut-shell description that could help potential target readers identify with my work. When I tell them the series has themes of honor and altruism, I know it will resonate with some readers and I hope they’ll be more likely to buy that first book. Readers who don’t care for heroes who are too “nice” may also be motivated to steer clear – which reduces my risk of getting unenthusiastic reviews from folks who just aren’t part of my target audience.

I don’t think you can just slap a theme on top of an existing manuscript, or poke a few holes and try to insert one. Themes have to be organically part of the story. But if you see the seeds of a theme in your work as you’re writing it – or find one trying to emerge while doing revisions – I’m suggesting that you nurture it. And also that you find a way to work it into your cover blurb.

What do you think? Am I onto something, or off-base? Any genre works with themes that you can point to? Do they benefit from having one? How about your own work?

Can fiction change the world?

Ray Bradbury once said that he wasn’t trying to predict the future; he was trying to prevent it.

Everyone accepts that nonfiction books can be very influential, but does fiction ever change the world? Well, I think it can—by changing awareness or attitudes. Usually, when it happens, that was the author’s intent. I believe Charles Dickens hoped to improve the lot of London’s poor by presenting their plight to the readers of his Victorian tales—such familiar works as Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was clearly intended to influence attitudes towards slavery during the period leading up to the American Civil War. It’s generally credited with having some impact. (It was the best-selling novel of the 19th Century, although it’s now often derided for its sentimentality and its stereotypes.) Other influences were not intentional: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories have probably influenced the development of forensic science, although Doyle had no such intention.

Even if a book doesn’t change the world, it may still change someone’s life. Most writers of fiction are working from a desire to entertain – or, in a mundane sense, to sell books to readers. Readers simply won’t buy books if they aren’t entertained by them. Writers may also be driven by an urge to create, the need to respond to their innate desire to tell a story. But what makes a book entertaining? What makes a story a good story? I think ultimately it is the human element. The writer takes a character and puts him or her in a situation, and then proceeds to describe the consequences of what the character does. The up-shot may not be earthshaking, but it must at least ring true. For any given person reading that story, the truth it contains may resonate in a special way – a meaningful or a helpful way. That may not be why writers write, or why readers read; it’s just an inescapable byproduct of the whole activity. And once in a while a work of fiction may just capture the mind of a generation and take it somewhere it otherwise would not have gone.

Well, maybe that’s going a little far. But I don’t think fiction writers should be put down for engaging in a “trivial” activity. I don’t think they should sell themselves short. After all, you just never know.

What do you think? Ever want to change the world? Can you think of a fiction work that has done that? Is there one that has changed you?

Truth, Justice, and the Happy Ending

Parthenon from west
Parthenon from west (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My brother says the main difference between “great” literature and the rest of it is that great literature isn’t allowed to have a happy ending.

If there’s a happy ending to it, it automatically isn’t great.

Of course he’s being a little facetious, but not much. There does seem to be some truth in the notion. If one goes back to the ancient Greeks, for example, (always a good place to start for western culture), those folks wrote just two kinds of plays – comedies and tragedies. There was no “drama” category. A “comedy” was light entertainment, not to be taken seriously. Anything that was serious was a “tragedy.” The distinction still seems to be with us when we get to Shakespeare and it lingers with us today in that you still hear a happy ending described as too “easy” or too “trivial.” Happy endings aren’t “realistic,” people say. If the function of literature is to hold up a mirror to the world that reflects “truth,” then your story ought to be a downer since the real world can’t be counted on to deliver a happy ending.

Happy endings do, of course, occasionally happen in the real world, although arranging one often requires that one chose carefully where to end the story. One of my favorite movies is Apollo 13.  It’s such a great true story.  But that sublimely feel-good moment of homecoming is tempered by the voice-over epilogue that tells us about the subsequent lives of the three astronauts. It’s obvious that “they all lived happily ever after” can’t be literally true – because nobody lives forever. As Peter S. Beagle put it in The Last Unicorn, “There are no happy endings, because nothing ends.”  (That’s one of a number of profound observations made in that book – which I highly recommend.) Tolkien’s variant is better: “He lived happily ever after to the end of his days.” That, at least, is possible.

Cover of "The Last Unicorn"
Cover of The Last Unicorn

My brother’s rather cynical point is that there’s a certain smug, highbrow snobbishness to the rejection of the happy ending. Happy endings are popular, and if one is going to practice “high art” one mustn’t stoop to the level of appealing to the masses.

All of this got me to thinking about why happy endings are so popular. Obviously they make us feel good. We often identify with the protagonist, so a good outcome for the protagonist is, vicariously, a good outcome for us. On the other hand, some of us also take pleasure from reading about bad things happening to other people (generally the rich and famous), as shown by the popularity of the tabloid press. So what, exactly, is going on here?

There are probably various hypotheses one could offer, but the one I’m going with today is simply this:

Human beings crave justice. And justice, in the real world, all too often eludes us.

We want the world to be fair, and it isn’t. We enact laws in our societies in an effort to create justice in the world. We offer up prayers and make sacrifices to our gods in an effort to persuade them to give us – or those we care about – what we believe we each deserve. We join causes, we found nonprofit organizations. Some of us turn to vigilante-ism. If we have managed to come out on top in life, we may persuade ourselves that we have earned it, that those who are less successful must be less deserving. When all else fails, we tell ourselves that death is not the end and that it will all be made right in the hereafter.

Or, if we happen to be writers of fiction, we write stories with happy endings.

I think story-telling is a fundamental human trait, like bipedalism, complex language, tool use, and being a social animal. I previously wrote about the instructive nature of stories, and their entertainment value. But fiction also offers us a powerful opportunity to indulge our craving for justice. When, as a writer, you create a work of fiction, you are the god of your fictional universe, and the temptation inevitably presents itself to make the story turn out the way you know it ought to.  If someone works hard, he ought to be successful. If a person takes on an evil-doer, he should win. The sweet child who faces a life-threatening illness with faith and courage should pull through. Good deeds should be rewarded. Sacrifices should not be in vain.

We know that every story needs conflict in order to be interesting, and conflict implies that something has to go wrong for somebody. We happy-ending-lovers just want the story to turn out right in the end. Is that really too much to ask? I mean, if we want to see things turning out wrong, all be have to do is look around us. I, for one, get tired of all the injustice, the pain, the tears.

Turning out right can mean seeing bad people get their just deserts, as well as seeing good people get their just reward. A story that focuses entirely on a “bad” person could have a “bad” ending and still be “right.” (I just don’t personally enjoy focusing on bad people.) Endings that satisfy my desire for justice don’t have to have “happily ever after” endings.  They only have to make things right.

Two of my favorite movies are Gladiator and V for Vendetta. Neither is a happily-ever-after tale. Both revolve around men who have suffered great wrongs, who have essentially lost everything but their lives, and who are trying to change the world for the better before they die. Both are stories about setting things right.

My husband and I originally had a disagreement about the ending of the movie “Inception.” He thought the little top left spinning at the end was intentionally ambiguous, and he liked that ambiguity. I thought the fact that the top was beginning to wobble meant it would eventually fall. And I also said this was the “right” ending, because the other ending would not have been fair.  The main character had earned the right to the happy ending. (The filmmaker has since weighed in on the issue, and I was right.)

What about you? Where do you stand on truth, justice, and happy endings?

Writers, readers, and breaking trust

Truth
Truth (Photo credit: d4vidbruce)

Among the comments on my recent post about truth in fiction, was one from the norfolknovelist  in which she pointed out, among other things, that if you violate the truth in your fiction, your readers may decide they can’t trust you. This is a valid point, although it’s also clear that fiction writers routinely bend or stretch the truth in some ways without getting into trouble with their readers (not to mention constructing things out of whole cloth). This is because readers of fiction are willing within limits to do something called suspending disbelief. After all, if everything in a fiction story had to be true, it wouldn’t exactly be fiction, would it?

Or, as my teenage son so aptly puts it whenever I start getting bent out of shape over some scientific inaccuracy in a book or movie: “Mom, it’s fiction!

So, what can you get away with, and what can’t you? Well, for the fictitious elements of your story, you can get away with anything from plausible to downright impossible depending on the genre.  You can do angels and demons, magical transformations, time travel – for the right audience. That’s where disbelief-suspension comes in. The devil, however, is in the mundane details – where it comes down to reader knowledge and reader expectations. These, in turn, vary depending both on the setting of your story and on the audience you are writing for. If you’re writing a story involving contemporary life, you’d better get as many details right as possible because your readers are contemporary with your setting and they are going to know details. Every reader may not know everything, but they’re all going to know something. If you’re writing a crime drama or detective story you had better get your forensics right because people who read this kind of story care about that kind of detail. Making an inaccurate statement about the kind of information that can be gleaned from a particular forensic technique is going to lose their trust big-time if they either already know the truth or later find out that you had it wrong. On the other hand, these readers aren’t likely to care if a minor character who is a bird watcher makes an inaccurate comment about the markings of the black-headed grosbeak – unless, perhaps, it turns out to be relevant to the solution of the crime.

BUT, there is another – perhaps even more important – aspect to reader trust.

This other aspect of trust relates more to internal consistency than to consistency with the external world. I’m not talking about saying a character has red hair in chapter 2 and brown hair in chapter 7 because you forgot what you wrote in chapter 2.  That’s an error of continuity. It needs to be fixed, but if it were to sneak through, it would be more likely to make your readers think you were sloppy than to lose their trust. No, I’m talking about lying to your readers. I’m talking about the situation where the writer purposefully tells the readers that A is true in chapter 2 and then has it turn out in chapter 7 that A is not true and in fact the truth is B.

Why on earth would writers do this? Because they don’t want the readers to guess the truth too early in the story! Not surprisingly, mystery writers are some of the worst offenders, but at some level every story is a mystery and so all fiction writers are potentially subject to this temptation.

Here’s the deal: When you tell a story, the reader implicitly trusts that what you say is true is true, within the context of the story. To put it another way, when you are the omniscient narrator, you are the Voice of God – for that story.

So don’t overstate the facts to try to mislead your readers. It’s a lie. It’s a cheat. It’s a violation of the readers’ trust.

Consider your wording carefully to achieve the desired effect without engaging in outright deception. There are important differences between the following examples:

a)      He looked in the window and saw his wife lying dead on the floor.

b)      He looked in the window and saw his wife lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

c)       He looked in the window and saw the body of a dark-haired woman in a blue evening gown lying on the floor in a pool of blood.

In the first case you’ve told us the person he saw was his wife and that she was dead. It had better not later turn out that it wasn’t his wife or that she wasn’t dead. In the second case you’ve told us it was his wife, but while the pool of blood may suggest she is dead, you haven’t actually said so. And finally, in the last case, you haven’t explicitly identified the woman (although the description might match that of his wife), nor have you explicitly stated that the woman is dead.

A skillful writer can have the readers pretty much where he or she wants them to be without ever telling them a lie.

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?

Why do we create fiction?

I strongly suspect that human beings have been telling stories for about as long as we have had language that was complex enough to make it possible.

(One of the defining characteristics of complex language is that it allows you to talk about things you and have not seen, and be understood by a listener who has never seen them either. “I never saw a purple cow. I never hope to see one. But I can tell you anyhow, I’d rather see than be one.”)

I picture our hunter-gather ancestors huddled around the campfire at night telling stories.  I’m sure it began with the simple recounting of the teller’s experiences. (“I crossed the stream, and went over the hill, and I met a…”) The first simple stories would not have been fiction. They would have been accurate accounts within the limits of the storyteller’s understanding. I imagine that storytelling would have conferred a selective advantage because the stories served a purpose: to convey information about the world – such as where to find food, or how to avoid danger. And I’m sure the information was more likely to be grasped and remembered if the stories were interesting – if they drew the listeners in and held their attention. In other words, these early stories were learning opportunities that would have been more effective as such if they were good stories to begin with, and also if they were well-told. Their power would have come partly from their realness – and I don’t mean the fact that they were true stories. I mean that they felt real to the listeners because the listeners could vividly imagine the storyteller’s experiences – even imagine themselves moving through the story in the storyteller’s place.

I believe we often learn better from stories than from dry recitations of facts because a good story makes the useful information it contains more concrete and more personal. The story creates a more real experience in the mind of the listener or reader because it engages his or her imagination.

These, then, are the three components that are essential to successful human learning-from-storytelling:

  • A good story (interesting content)
  • Good storytelling (language skills, dramatic sense, etc.)
  • Imagination (on the part of the listeners/readers)

Why is imagination important for the listeners? A really bad telling will ruin a good story, and even the best storyteller will be a flop without good material. But you could have a great story that was superbly told, and it would still be wasted if your listeners were unable to picture in their minds the people, places, and events of the story.

Well okay, you say, that explains the origin of narrative nonfiction – but, what about fiction? Your title sort of implies that you were going to talk about that. (Ahem!)

I’m getting there.

So the question is: when did our hunter-gather ancestors first start making things up?

I’m sure this happened pretty early, too. It would have started with simply embellishing an otherwise factual narrative. One obvious motivation would have been self-aggrandizement. If the storyteller were relating his own experiences, he might wish to make himself appear smarter, more competent, or more heroic. And if several other people sitting around that campfire had good stories to tell that night while his day had been dull and uneventful, he might just be inspired to concoct something out of whole cloth. Does that mean that fiction got its start from people lying?  Well, not really. Lying has the intent to deceive, and, while I’m sure there were some who tried to do that, they would have ultimately been caught in their lies and would have lost standing in their tribal groups as a result.  No, I’m sure a lot of those early spinners of fiction were motivated by a desire to entertain their listeners – because stories do definitely entertain.

Stories entertain because they offer vicarious experiences. Entertainment consists of experiences that we seek out because we  enjoy them, rather than for any obvious practical benefit – and vicarious ones seem to work almost as well as real ones. In the case of stories, the listener or reader can follow the adventures of the hero or heroine without having to actually face the dangers, or endure the hardships, and without having to possess the knowledge, skills, or prowess necessary to successfully deal with the problems encountered.  Through stories you can travel – via your imagination – to places you have never been, or could never go. You can witness wonders beyond anything the mundane world has to offer.  People do crave novel experiences, but they naturally (and sensibly) shy away from dangers and try to avoid hardships, and the mundane requirements of their lives tend to prevent them from traveling unnecessarily or going adventuring.  Stories conveniently get around these limitations.

Magazine cover of Imagination December 1952 issue.
magazine cover of Imagination, December 1952 issue.
wikipedia

The components essential  for the success of an entertaining story are the same as for an informative one: good story, good storytelling, and imagination. The difference, in the case of fiction, is that imagination is required on the part of the author as well as the listener/reader. And this is part of the reason why I believe fiction provides a positive benefit to human beings – why it isn’t just a byproduct of the fact that humans benefit from the telling of true stories.  Nothing exercises the imagination quite like the process of concocting a good piece of fiction. The rest of the reason is that this exercise-for-the-imagination benefit extends beyond the author to touch the readers/listeners as well. It’s this simple: True stories are limited by what is true, while fiction is limited only by the restrictions of one’s imagination.  And imagination is what takes us beyond what is concrete and visible, beyond what we already know. It is the basis of all future vision and all creative enterprise.  Without imagination, humans would not be human.

If you can imagine more elaborate imaginings, you can dream bigger dreams. And if you dream bigger dreams, you are likely to achieve greater achievements.