Friday, March 2, 2012

But is it a true story?

I wonder if any of you novelists out there have heard this question before?  I can’t tell you the number of times I have been asked this in the middle of my bookselling when I’m frantically trying to give people the right change or sign one of my books or fill out an invoice.

If you have been asked this, I would be very interested to hear how you’ve answered it. It’s quite a trick question, don’t you think? I know what those who ask it usually mean, however. They want to know if my characters are ‘real people’ and if the events in my novels ‘really happened’. Well, in some instances, my characters are ‘real people’. But some of them are only partly so—and some are actually two or three or more ‘real people’ all rolled into one!

As for whether the events I write about ‘really happened’, some did—and some didn’t. And bits of some happened and bits didn’t! And various bits that ‘really happened’ to various people on various occasions are sometimes all rolled into the one event.

But then it gets even more complicated. Sometimes I have ‘real’ characters involved in events that did not actually happen and are not strictly speaking ‘real’. And sometimes ‘real’ events take place but the characters I portray in these events are not the ‘real people’ who were involved. And so it goes on ...

 A few months back, I wrote a blog for International Christian Fiction Writers called ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’ (http://internationalchristianfictionwriters.blogspot.com/2011/09/truth-is-stranger-than-fiction.html). Among other things, I wrote how sometimes when I tell readers certain events in my novels ‘really happened’, they look very doubtfully at me and wonder if I’m telling the truth. Sometimes people are so amazing and events so bizarre that my readers assume I ‘made them up’. In response to this blog, LeAnn Hardy, an American author and ICFW member, commented how she firmly believes that ‘the best books tell the truth even when the story is made up’. And I am inclined to agree with her. I would hope that even when nothing I have my characters do ‘really happened’, they are in fact acting ‘truthfully’ or acting in line with the character I have given them and thus come across as authentic. And I hope too, of course, that God’s truth is clearly conveyed in my novels whether the characters or events or both are ‘real’ or not.

Anne Lamott makes some interesting points about telling the truth in writing in her excellent book Bird by Bird (Scribe, 2008). In her chapter on ‘Character’, she writes:

A write paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It’s a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of the truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly. You make up your characters, partly from experience, partly out of the thin air of the subconscious, and you need to feel committed to telling the exact truth about them, even though you are making them up. (pp 52-53)

So ... are all the characters and events in my novels ‘real’? Well ... yes and no! But do I write ‘true’ stories? I certainly hope so!

Jo-Anne Berthelsen grew up in Brisbane and holds an Arts degree from Queensland University.  She has also studied Education and Theology and has worked as a high school teacher and editor, as well as in local church ministry in Sydney. Jo-Anne loves communicating through both the written and spoken word and currently has five published novels – ‘Heléna’, ‘All the Days of My Life’, ‘Laura’, ‘Jenna’ and ‘Heléna’s Legacy’.  She is married to a retired minister and has three grown-up children and two grandchildren.

10 comments:

  1. So true Jo-Anne. Whether the details in a story are factual or not, I believe the integrity of a character, the absolute truthes that are contained in the story as well as the truthes about human beings and relationships are far more important.

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  2. I agree. It's the 'truth' of the characters. Great blog, Jo-Anne.

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    1. Yes, it's a question that exposes the two different and totally separate meanings of the word "truth". I always find that question jarring because after months of getting the heads of my characters and knowing how they think, it feels like as much of a lie to say it isn't true as it does to say it is true.

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    2. Sorry, not Ray, it's Mary on his computer.
      A really great post, Jo-Anne. I can't say I've ever been asked this so bluntly but when thinking about some questions realise now that is probably what people were asking. As always, I look at the parables of Jesus. We are not told that Jesus actually knew a woman who searched so hard for that lost coin, or that he actually knew a prodigal son and his father. Nevertheless, the truths he taught through those stories are very real whether he was telling the story of people he knew personally or not.

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    3. You're absolutely right, Paula, that two separate meanings of the word 'truth' are involved here. Usually the question I've been asked means 'But have you written about 'real' people'.

      And Mary, that's a great point re Jesus' story of the Prodigal Son, the woman who loses the coin etc. Must remember that when I next have to answer this question.

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  3. They say fact is stranger than fiction. When I read suzzanahs Gold written by Carol Preston I decided it had to be fact for no author would make up such a string of events it is based on fact. Have you ever lived through life when you circumstances were so bizarre that you life was beyond fiction?

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    1. Sure, Jo. Even though sometimes reviewers reckon there could be too many "coincidences" they are really God incidences!

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  4. I've often been asked that same question,Jo-Anne, and I usually tell them all my books are based on factual events or characters. But like you say, many are integrated. And how could we not write about many of those interesting and charismatic folk who have crossed our paths?

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  5. Thanks everyone for your comments. Really interesting to read them all. Funny, but just today while selling my books at a conference, I was asked this very same question about three times! Then as I tried to explain how a novel kind of 'evolves' from 'real' events, they looked at me a little strangely, as if I had lost the plot (pardon the pun)!

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  6. My approach to avoiding the potential inconsistency of terminology is to consider that my fictional characters should be 'consistent' and always 'in character'.

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