The holiday season evokes numerous questions about what is “truly” spiritual, loving, generous, or joyful. Partial truths abound. Is everyone merry? Do gifts express love? If your mom wants you to play nice with her bigoted, alcoholic brother, is it true that you owe her that?
This time of year elicits as many questions as platitudes. For novelists, though, whatever the season, the big questions always matter, and drama is always the best way to present them.
Whether theater or fiction, drama originates in the gap between reality and an artistic presentation of it. To probe truth, that created reality must be more credible, causal, and moral than random everyday life.
This concept goes all the way back to Plato calling art imitative, and Aristotle countering that, basically saying, yes, imitation is instinctive, but to create what we call “art,” something beyond replication is needed
That something is inextricably intertwined with fact versus truth.
Albert Camus was on Aristotle’s side, saying:
Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.
Let’s break that down. By definition, fiction isn’t true. But facts don’t always compel and can even mislead. In any case, empirical data rarely fosters deep empathy about those from other times, cultures, even worlds.
Fiction is a more effective vehicle for inducing empathy, and with that comes a huge responsibility. Neil Gaiman is adamant about this:
We writers–and especially writers for children, but all writers–have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were–to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are.
Ralph Waldo Emerson identified this same irony:
Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.
Nor is this an observation meant for poets and philosophers. As Stephen King puts it,
Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.
How does this lie/truth business apply? Consider a Christmas story. The starting point would not be a collection of facts about how many gifts people buy or return. Not even how many people fly or drive to convene with family. Because on its own, such data can’t probe for “truth.”
Instead, a story about one family’s holiday would be composed or at least embellished (not true) in order to reveal change in character (more true) caused by a dramatic event (also true and most compelling of all).
The result? New truths—real ones—about this family, truths so universal that readers discover new truths about themselves. Isn’t that exactly why fiction simulates reality rather than merely reproducing it?
Tip: Fiction captures truth by replacing facts with plausible, causal, and suspenseful details.