We’ve all been told at some time or another that fiction is not true but should be believable. In other words, good fiction is something made up that feels like it isn’t. When we read a great book like Winnie the Pooh, we don’t really believe that there actually existed a menagerie of talking animals and stuffed toys like the author, A.A. Milne, created. What we know is that these characters act as real people do, and they have the miseries, foibles, and dreams that real people do.
Charlotte’s Web rings true, not because spiders can spell and farm animals can talk but because the challenges and conflicts that E. B. White wove into this tale are the kind that real world people face everyday.
It’s the characters and their experiences that make a story and the writer is challenged with making both of those real, entertaining, and surprising enough for the reader to keep reading. Sometimes that means telling a story like I wrote in Secondhand Summer: a fiction built on a framework of fact. I based the book on the pivotal summer of my youth when I moved to Anchorage from Ninilchik, leaving a twenty-by-twenty log cabin in the woods for a two-bedroom apartment in a big city Neighborhood.
My father had died that winter, and my mother had to find work in the city. I found myself at twelve, a wild-in-the-streets kid with a whole new world to explore while I adjusted to life as an emerging teenage orphan. So why, one might ask, make this fiction? Why not write a memoir piece that allows the adult author to explore the trials and tribulations of his youth. This is a two-part answer. 1) I was going to have to make things up anyway because my memory is not comprehensive, and 2) a well-constructed story has to have an impact and rhythm to keep the young reader engaged. This required a shift in timeline and plot in a way that makes the story interesting. Some things I modified or compressed, others I changed, and some of it was just made up. But all of it, if I did it right, rang so true that readers could not discern the fact from the fiction, and the whole yarn seemed plausible.
A novelist is much like the braggart after a couple of beers for whom the trails are longer and muddier, the opponent more dangerous, and the fish fought much longer and when landed found enormous. We writers are tellers of tales and it is not the enormity of our lies that make our stories great but it is the truth in the tales, the real people reacting in real ways to a continuous stream of problems. Brian, the main character in Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, is not admired for his miraculous deeds but for his true-boy foibles and fears that make the readers willing to follow him through the forest, rooting for him all the way because he is one of them.
If Brian were so tough and strong and smart that surviving a plane crash in the wilderness was no challenge, we wouldn’t care to read his story. We read his story because in the beginning, Brian is the kid next door, that other kid in PE who can’t dribble the basketball. Throughout the story, he is still that kid, growing stronger and more confident maybe, but still just a kid from the neighborhood.
Whether our protagonist is trying to win the science fair at the risk of loosing her cool friends, or fighting to protect the aliens living in her basement, she has to act, talk, and feel like someone we know or can believe in. If that doesn’t work, the rest is a waste of time. The most dramatic aliens and non-stop action won’t make up for false characters. That’s the hard work of writing – at least for me –because I know that the art of writing fiction is making up true stories.