To Lie for Truth’s Sake: the Novelist’s Conundrum


The job of a fiction writer is to lie. Still, if it were only to lie, you could dedicate yourself to advertising or politics instead, and accept troubled sleep as the price for prosperity. But a fiction writer must lie to show truth, and that’s not as easy as it sounds. There’s a certain process of abstraction that you face, a surrendering of the details of your own life to the dictates of art. The wheat must be ground to flour before you can make bread. The details of your life need to lose their relation to you before you can express anything close to a universal truth while “writing what you know.”

Here are some hints:

  1. Forget yourself
    Too many people interpret the admonition to “write what you know” to mean, “Write your own life story.” But it’s not really a license to trumpet your wonderful qualities and strict opinions to the adoring masses. Write about what you have seen happen in the world around you. Everyone’s already got their own opinions on the nature of life, and, unless they’re pathologically unconfident, they don’t want yours. (In any case, each of you thinks the other is wrong–isn’t that so?) But no one has passed through the little tranch of the world that you have walked. Tell the stories that you’ve seen around you. Cut out the padding, the fluff, and the opinions. Stick to actions, interactions, and the feelings you see on your fellow’s faces. Find the ones that express patterns you see in all your neighbors’ lives, and you will have found your story. It’s not about you: it’s about your witnessing.
  2. Don’t be a stage mother
    Your protagonists should be themselves, not your puppets. You’ll know you’re becoming a fiction writer when your characters begin to do things that exasperate you. This is good: it provides narrative tension. Rather than fighting it, exaggerate it. You have a few hundred pages to tell stories that may cover decades–maybe ten or twelve hours of reading time, usually much less. Don’t worry that your reader won’t understand you if your protagonist isn’t a clone of its author. No one will understand you anyway. No one understands anyone else. That’s precisely why we have love–and art–to make life possible. Let your characters live out their lives on your pages. Realize that whatever happens comes out of your soul anyway. If you have a problem with that, see a therapist.
  3. Lie gracefully and be consistent.
    Once you’ve paroled your characters from the prison of your own self-regard, let them live free. Don’t set up a police state that controls every least word or movement of the populace. This requires you to lie like a spy or an actor or any other professional prevaricator to keep them acting like real people, even though they are nothing but little electrical wobblings in your brain. Don’t be tempted to make anyone a mouthpiece for the author, as awesome as you might think yourself to be. They are no more your property than your own grown children are. They belong to the story. Lie well, and let them live.
  4. Lie by omission too.
    Avoid excessive detail. Your job is not to paint a picture of surfaces; your job is to write a code that will evoke appropriate images in someone else’s brain: a lie that they will convert to truth by the metabolic process of reading, that is, scanning blobs of ink that stand for sounds that stand for the mystery of animal existence. It doesn’t matter that the character you’re writing wears the same cut of mustache or carries the same brand of handbag that you do. In fact, that may limit them. A more general description of the symbolic affectations that humans use to advertise themselves will let your readers build a more specific image of the characters and their lives in their own heads, out of their own pains. Not yours. After all, your readers may live anywhere on earth, from Dehli to Detroit.

In other words, write a story that your readers can remake in their own image. Instead of playing god, you grant them godhood! A few loving lies can help this happen. Too much truth will just be clutter. A good novel is nothing less than an honest lie.

And that’s what makes it difficult. But then, you volunteered for this gig.

Rick Risemberg