What is a novelist’s obligation to the truth? The very word fiction implies untruth. When children read or hear a story that frightens them, they’re told not to worry because “it’s not true.” But for many stories to work, one has to suspend disbelief. So the essence of a novel appears to be something dishonest. The very process of creating implies changing reality.
And yet there are many novels—most successful novels, even—that leave the reader with the feeling that the writer really captured it. What he or she has done is create believable characters first so that whatever they do or whatever happens to them is credible. Now, the reader is in it. The reader is stepping out of his or her reality and entering a place to which he or she would not normally go without opening the cover and beginning to read. For me, this emanates from a simple question: what if?
Writers like myself see what’s real, what is happening, and wonder, “Yes, but what if this was changed or that part didn’t happen?” If the reader believes in the character, he or she will be hooked and willing to accept untruth. This is not deception in the pejorative sense; nothing evil is intended here. What’s intended, depending on the nature of the work, is either to give the reader some respite from the real, troubled world he or she is in, or to create a challenge with interesting questions and possibilities.
It’s when a novelist decides on a political motive that the story enters a different place and perhaps skirts the boundaries of real deceit. A writer can create characters that resemble political figures so clearly that no one can mistake them for whom they’re meant to represent, and then have them succeed, fail, help, or hurt others per the writer’s political motive.
Some great novels have done this and succeeded overwhelmingly. Consider Huckleberry Finn with its clear social criticism of racism, ironically banned and chastised in a politically correct world for depicting its negative characters so accurately as to put nasty words in their dialogue—the very words they do use. Wash Huckleberry Finn and, although it’s a made up story, it becomes untrue. It sounds almost like an oxymoron but is demonstrably accurate.
Wherein then is the challenge for authors and editors, publishers and readers? Is it all right to make up a story with characters so politically correct that the author will be accused of bias? Where would Dickens be without his wonderful capture of personalities that existed—that he permitted to dress, speak, and act as they did in reality?
Where is the line? When does one decide, “If I publish this, I will be supporting an ideology many of my readers despise”? Can I write a novel with a heroic Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton? Would anyone publish it? Who will read it? Have I violated some unwritten rule? Is fiction really there only to amuse readers?
Probably the best advice to give to any writer is: Don’t write when you’re angry. Write when you’re wandering through the wonderful world of your imagination and not when your immersed in down and dirty politics. Take a chance with subtlety, employ some humor, think of the beauty of the language, spend more time on helping the reader visualize the world you’re creating, and, of course, lie and deceive, but only in the sense of magic.
Somehow, in the end, the reader will put down the book and say, “That was a great ride, and yet, I feel like I didn’t spend my time only in make believe. There’s something there.”
Of course there is—only the clever author is letting readers come to that conclusion on their own. What a wonder a great, well told story is.
Andrew Neiderman has published 46 thrillers and ghostwritten V.C. Andrews for over 30 years.