Good fiction is, at its heart, about truth. Some may disagree with this statement, but think about it for a moment. The books and characters that resonate with us most deeply as readers and humans speak to us on a level that is hard to describe. They tell us something about ourselves and the world around us.
Some of the things they tell us aren’t nice. They can be unpleasant and downright uncomfortable. But if the writer is being true to the story and characters, she is writing exactly what those characters would do and say.
There’s a saying common among writers: Write what you know. Okay, so if I followed this strictly, I could only write realistic fiction about a 28-year-old single Mormon woman. That would be fine if I were writing a memoir. But I’m not.
The thing about writers—the best ones, the ones who create the most believable worlds, whether realistic or fantasy—is that they imagine. Their minds are filled with what-ifs. They see a situation, hear a story, notice a person, and their mind takes them down a long road of “what if this person … ”
Now these writers, they imagine a lot of things. Some of those things continue the story and keep it moving forward. But sometimes writers must stop and ask themselves deeper questions. If I write this, people may get upset and ban my book. Am I willing to accept that? Should I tone this down and write it so no one would get upset? Would my character really, honestly, truly act this way?
Swinging around to where we started, we have to stick to truth when we write, truth at its most basic. We have to accurately portray the world of these characters and write them honestly.
My biggest frustration with books is when a heroine does something so completely out of character that the entire story feels false. When a story ends in a way that doesn’t feel right. I’m not referring to “right” in the moral sense of the word, but “right” in the sense that the story doesn’t ring true, isn’t true to the people in it. The book could have been absolutely perfect up to that point, but then that moment comes when the writer messes it all up. The character says or does something alien to their nature, so the entire book feels false and unrealistic.
I see this happening when the writer doesn’t really know who her characters are. She hasn’t delved enough into their psyche. But this can also happen with the writer comes to that point in the story—that pivotal moment when one action or word changes everything—and they take the easy way out. They back off, pull back, and make everything better. Or they throw in violence, sex, something so sensational that it’s sure to cause tongues to wag. In either case, they have committed the fatal error of not being true to the characters or the story. They took the easy way out.
Now let me explain what precipitated this entire thought process.
I don’t swear. I don’t drink, do drugs, sleep around. I’m the quintessential “good girl.” I don’t say this to brag in any way, but to explain. I don’t do any of those things, but some of the characters I write do. In the book I’m currently writing, none of the characters would be considered “good” girls.
These girls, well, they swear. I shied away from it for quite a while, tried to phrase things in a way that would tiptoe around it. Then I realized that I wasn’t being true to these girls I’m writing. Their lives are so different from my experience and my life, but when I imagine these girls, I can see and hear and know them. They are in difficult situations and they don’t always keep their language clean. They have made choices and taken actions I would never even consider. But they have.
Some people may well be disappointed in my choice to write about characters in these situations without lambasting them and their actions. I’m neither condoning nor condemning them, but whatever my personal views, I have to be true to these girls or I would be the one lying.
Everything is not clean and easy with this book. I’ve already bawled my eyes out while writing, and I’m only a third of the way into the manuscript. I’ve had to confront some really tough emotions and thoughts because these girls do. I wanted to take the easy way with this story, but the girls wouldn’t let me. I was lying to them and myself. Now that I’ve realized this, I understand these girls so much better. Now I can tell their story honestly and truly.