On fiction: How it’s all about the truth behind the lie

1181779_girl_on_a_planeToday I feel inspired to talk about the truth inside the lie: where fiction is concerned, the truth that IS the lie. In my mind, that “truth” is a large part of the beauty and the value of all the humanities and the arts.

Earlier this week I wrote about the hidden reason we all write differently: the fact that we write fiction because we enjoy writing fiction, and different things about the writing process and the stories it produces are enjoyable to different people.

Bellatrix Minor responded in part by saying she enjoyed:

“Putting emotion into words, making emotions as honest and direct as I can in a language that I personally can enjoy.”

That comment got me thinking about fiction and emotion, and how a story that is “false” and “made up” can still ring awesomely and inherently true to what it means to be human.

This isn’t a new revelation or anything like that. For sure, I’m not the first person mark or to write about this paradox. But Bellatrix’s remark got me thinking about the paradox.

The lie that speaks the truth is what attracts us to fiction both as readers and writers.

Fiction is all about emotion, and living, and the characters. Fiction is about any and all of this:

  • About discovering what it means (0r doesn’t mean) to love
  • About grieving through loss and recovering after loss
  • About learning how to hope when things are hopeless and to forgive the unforgiveable (as GK Chesterton would define charity)
  • About turning anger and frustration at injustice into motivation to make changes
  • About the courage to stand up for what is right and for those who aren’t in position to defend themselves, despite the risks involved

The people in fiction might not be real, but what they’re feeling and struggling against certainly is. That representation of the reality we all have to face is why fiction matters.

Sure, reading makes us more intelligent in a “school-based” way. And that matters too.

But reading and writing also make us more intelligent in an emotional way. They make us question our gut instincts and gut reactions to life: reactions that might not be the healthiest at the end of the day.

They remind us that everyone else is as emotionally complex and feels as lost and confused in life as we do. Heck, I’ve written an entire post before about the connection between writing and increased empathy.


Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying we all need to be writing soap operas. Melodrama can be fun if it’s done purposefully and done well, but….

All literature needn’t be ALL about emotion and confronting horrible, dreadful circumstances.

All stories in all genres tell the truths of human emotion. They explore the density of human emotion, and they do that through lying about fake people.

This is why ancient civilizations were telling stories long before humans were writing anything. This is why the human impulse has always been to explain our surroundings through story: through myth.

The lie is always true.

What books or characters have impacted you most on an emotional level? I can say Sam and Frodo, at the end of The Lord of the Rings, almost had me in tears. I actually stopped reading to call them, out loud, “brave little hobbitses!”

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Also, if you’re interested, don’t forget that my writer’s handbook, “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction” JUST released this week and is on sale this week in e-book format.


47 responses to “On fiction: How it’s all about the truth behind the lie

  1. I am a reader not a writer but I know when i finish a good story it is just like a fine meal, leaving me wanting more and sad that it is over.

    • I totally agree!!! That’s a great analogy. I’m always longing for more after the end of a great book. I read Harry Potter as it was coming out and each time I read a new one it just killed me having to wait two years or so for the next!

  2. It’s almost always hard for me to pick just one of anything but what comes to mind is a YA book called Jana’s Journal. Some of the feelings really hit home with me, even if her circumstances didn’t.

  3. A book by Swedish Author Carl-Johan Vallgren called “Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot: His Wonderful Love and His Terrible Hatred.” Whew, long title. This was an amazing book that had me gripping the rails on an emotional roller-coaster. The book is a fact based, semi-historical fiction. An incredible read that I highly recommend.

    • It definitely sounds intriguing!!! I Thanks for the rec! I haven’t read much historical fiction but I know I love the historical episodes of Dr Who far, far too much, haha. This is worth looking into!

  4. Every one of John Green’s books impacts me emotionally. He has an amazing way of creating incredibly real characters, and most of his books make me cry at least once while reading.

  5. Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” was probably the most emotional read I had last year. Young boy who lost his father at 9/11 and seaches NYC for signs that his dad left for him. Dumbledore’s and Dobby’s funerals. And then there is an incredibly talented young writer who frequently posts pieces of writing on his blog, you cannot say if it is purely fiction or part-autobiographic, but he writes in a haunting way that touches me on such a raw emotional level… because he deals with honest raw human emotions, and it doesn’t matter if you can feel the situations he puts his characters in, because we all know these emotions… Mh. Got to write more short stories to practise this kind of wirting. Sometimes the emotions drown in adventurous plotlines…

  6. Gollum because he comes off as so pitiful that I do feel sorry for him. By the end of the trilogy, I was more concerned with his fate than the others. I think the drawing out of emotion is the key to a successful book. Getting a reader to connect to the characters is one of the best (if not THE best) way to push a story. Get a reader to cry or stay up late and you have a loyal fan for life.

  7. “The people in fiction might not be real, but what they’re feeling and struggling against certainly is. That representation of the reality we all have to face is why fiction matters.” I’m heartbroken by the “Common Core” mandate to stop teaching fiction in public schools; there is more truth in classics I read in high school than in many nonfictions books I’ve read.

    • so, so true!!! that’s a real shame and our kids will be no better for the change! 😦

    • I think well written fiction can often give us more of a sense of connection with a culture, too. Whenever I’m researching an event, a time, a culture, I always search out fiction from the period, written by someone who was there because they will often communicate things that those who are writing “for the record” may not consider important, or simply that cannot be communicated directly.

      • That’s a fantastic point!!! I had never thought of it that way, but Victor Hugo can teach us about 19th century France. And who better to teach us about Victorian England than Charles Dickens?

  8. I really liked the line that reading makes us more intelligent in an emotional way, because I think this is underappreciated but very true. I think reading and writing has made me more emotionally intelligent because I feel like I get immersed in different situations.

    • That’s exactly it: it’s the emotional equivalent of learning a foreign language in an immersion program. You’re just overwhelmed and surrounded by these other people who paradoxically don’t exist but have minds, dreams, and problems all their own.

  9. I also love the resilience of the hobbits in Lord of the Rings. But another book that hits me viscerally is PERSUASION by Jane Austen, particularly the line: “All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.” I can relate to that sentiment.

  10. Wonderful post! I believe that this is what is really at the core of “write what you know” – of course it is admonition to writers to do their topic research, but mostly I think it is a reminder to write characters as we live our lives – from the inside, out.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I totally agree!!! Characters have to come from the inside out. I find that I put pieces of me in my characters, even the villains. Not on purpose, but it happens. It’s very strange!

  11. Loved your post! Yes there is truth in fiction. All emotions are indeed true and present in people. They represent us and what we are.

  12. Amen. Again. Emotions are a big part of reading, even if they’re not melodramas. I actually can’t take melodramas in a straight reading, it’s overwhelming to me. As a kid who never took my nose out of a book I think a story was a safe place for me to feel emotions. Especially when I typically hid from them or didn’t know how to process them. I love your line: the lie is always true.

  13. I would have to say Emma by Jane Austen. The book always has me gripped no matter how many times I read it 🙂

  14. Pingback: Why Readers Cut Real People More Slack Than Characters (Who Don’t Exist) | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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