Writing - Fact or Fiction?
Updated: Jun 18
Reading is a pleasure during these days of social distancing. I’m an extrovert, so not only do I miss having close contact with my family and friends, I miss spending time sitting in cafes and generally getting out amongst the crowds. Being around people energises me and this setting myself apart makes it hard for me to concentrate and I’m easily distracted. Thank goodness reading helps me escape reality for a while. Or does it?
Over the last few months I've read two interesting and contrasting novels. They started me thinking about how much reality is necessary in a novel, after-all they are fiction. I expect novels to tell stories and to entertain me unlike non-fiction books, biographies, autobiographies, or even memoirs. They may entertain, but they also inform. Yet, time and again, I've heard readers at Adelaide Writers’ week ask authors of fiction if their writing is based on their own lives or true events, as though a story needs to have an element of truth to be valid. This perplexes me. Do we search for truth and reality in our novels?
As most writers do, I research the topics relevant to my plot and try to imbue believability to make it plausible. A recent reviewer told me that my novel, Deadly Secrets, 'sounded very real' and she thought 'something like that could happen in the future' and I took that as a compliment. Yet, my novel is fiction and a product of my imagination. If a novel isn't credible, it's seen as too way out, unreal, and therefore lacking, yet reality has no such restrictions on how incredible it can be.
I recently read two novels, each with a different relationship between fact and fiction and I found the contrast interesting and thought provoking.
The first novel, is by one of my favourite authors, John le Carré. The Secret Pilgrim is a spy thriller, the eighth George Smiley novel and the story consists of a collection of reminiscences. In real life, John le Carré was a secret agent, and his intimate knowledge of that world and the way the organisations, and the people in them, worked, adds a sense of truth and reality. His fiction has credibility and provokes thinking about the world issues of that time and now. That's what I enjoy. The complexities of the issues, the different forces that play out in these stories and the way I can connect to them even now. They still have relevance. I have even taken short quotes from the novel that apply to today's issues (I will use those in my next blog).
In the afterword, John le Carré states very clearly:
Very few characters in my writing are drawn from actual people, and those who are tend to be a mishmash of several. Very few episodes have a basis in fact either…
I enjoy reading le Carré for his multi-layered plots, his very human characters and the important questions it raises for me. Knowing he has orchestrated these things doesn't diminish my enjoyment. Being fiction, I can mull over these stories without feeling the heavy burden of bearing witness to a truth.
The second novel I read is a very different kind of book. Tony Jones goes to great lengths to emphasise his novel, The Twentieth Man, is fiction. The plot in this historical political thriller, revolves around an actual event that occurred in the 1970s. Some of his characters are real people, who played an actual role in that event. He uses their real names and attributes actions and dialogue to these characters which may or may not be accurate. Tony Jones is a former political journalist, and although he says this novel is fiction, it’s not clear how much we can trust his depiction of the real people he uses in the story.
For me, this blurring of the lines between fact and fantasy is disconcerting. I struggled to read without stopping to question if the real characters would have really said this or done that. It bothered me that people may be misrepresented by this fictional characterisation. It also bothered me that I couldn’t easily separate the truth from Tony Jones’ imagination. Not everyone will have a problem with this, I did. I don't know if this blurring was deliberate or a device to make the story more appealing? I found it spoiled my enjoyment of what was good writing and a thrilling plot.
What do you think? Does blurring fact and fiction bother you in a novel or not?
My novel, Deadly Secrets, is fiction. I research my plot lines to ensure they are plausible. I use real events to build the details within a plot and to help me establish credible scenarios. I draw on real political issues to ask ‘what if’ and project my plot into new dimensions. The characters are not real people. Like John le Carré and other authors, my characters are an amalgamation of personality traits and characteristics that I have encountered over my life time. For me, using a real person as a character would limit what they could do or be.
The references I used to research my plot are listed on my website www.hrkempauthor.com I also have a gallery of holiday photos that inspired locations for scenes in my story. (Paris and Barcelona feature at the moment). These real elements inspire my stories and form a springboard for a fictional scenario which I hope entertains you.
It's clear to me that the blending of fact and fiction happens in novels on a sliding scale. It isn't a black and white issue. For me, I like credible and thought-provoking stories where the facts form a backdrop, or inform the writing but I don't like to be confused by what is real and what isn't while I'm reading. If I want facts, I read non-fiction.
I hope you all stay safe and well. Until next time.
If you'd like to read Deadly Secrets you can use the following links to buy it in either eBook or paperback.
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