Telling truths through story

I don’t have much for you this week. Other than remembering something one of my editors (who became a friend) said to me very early on in my fiction career. He said (and these are not the exact words, just a summary) “Fiction writers are making up lies as they go along — but these are lies which tell the truth.”

That’s always stuck with me. Especially as we progress toward the end of this century’s second decade. Who now dares to tell the truth? Especially in story form? Your average fledgling author, upon setting sail for publication, is promptly surrounded by a host of rhetorical U-boats — all demanding that the fledgling author conform to a blizzard of “correct” artistic and political expectations. Lest (s)he find herself on the “wrong side” of any number of editors, agents, other authors, etc. At which point said fledgling’s career will be sunk.

So, what remains? What’s the point?

Some people write for money. Others write for awards. Or prestige. Or to influence society. Or a combination of the same.

When I look at the stuff I’ve written over the past 8 years, I realize that I was — unconsciously — forever trying to speak the truth. About how ordinary, decent folk react to extraordinary, difficult circumstances. About how the universe is not just some happy accident of physics. About the timeless dance of romance, between men and women. About the noble dignity of a straightforward life, lived according to straightforward values. Even when the roof is caving in, or the bottom is dropping out.

Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

To choose one’s own way . . .

Ours is the era of, “It’s not my fault!” and “This was done to me!” and “It’s somebody else’s job to make my life better!”

But all of the quality literature on self-improvement, tends to reflect Frankl’s premise. That we alone, as individual human beings, still retain an underlying level of oneness and dignity. Which no earthly power is capable of stripping from us. So long as we do not forget who we are.

My protagonists tend to remember who they are, in the clutch. When it really counts. Not without bumps and bruises, mind you. Nobody goes through this life unscathed. Pain, or damage, don’t end the world. Each of us is fated to get it, in one way or another. That’s the state of existence. We can allow it to destroy us, or we can find within ourselves Frankl’s hidden, practically invincible freedom.

That’s probably the truth I want to tell. Because the world seems crazy, and it’s filled with people who react crazily.

Except, none of us has to fall off the cliff. We can look that crazy in the eye and say, “No thanks.” Re-button our collars, cinch up our ties, and get back to the business of building and preserving civilization.

What truths do you find yourselves unconsciously (or consciously) speaking through story?

36 Comments

Filed under BRAD R. TORGERSEN, WRITING: ART

36 responses to “Telling truths through story

  1. paladin3001

    What do I find myself writing? Good people will eventually find a place to stand and refuse to move. Whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. As well as making things better for those around them.

  2. -That sometimes love does conquer all. That faith, hope, and love together can work near-miracles in the heart.
    -That some things are worth digging in and fighting for, or fighting against.
    -That sometimes parents really can make everything better (at least when you are 12).
    -That faith shapes everything, no matter what specific creed a person truly holds as central in their heart of hearts, and that faith must be taken seriously, in fiction, in history, or in the “real world.”

  3. No offense, but the idea of telling truths through story makes me uneasy, as that’s essentially what the purveyors of message fiction claim we should do. Even though I’m a proponent of hard, universal, truths and not froo-froo variable truths, what I write can reflect how I see the world at that moment. Which is not to say “truth” comes first, but if I’m in a dark place, what I write isn’t going to be sweet lightness, either. I would not say that was truth, no matter how tempting that may be at that moment.

    • “Telling truths through story” isn’t the same as message fiction; note that Brad said he’d been doing it unconsciously. If the writer is succeeding at all in making a work feel real, that work will probably reveal something of his beliefs about how the world works.

      In a way it’s the exact opposite of message fiction, in which a writer consciously decides to write a story supporting a pre-determined message. The “message” is often the politically correct mantra of the moment, right? And that mantra is often so damn silly that no one can believe it. For instance, the message writer may think he believes that men and women are interchangeable widgets, but if his story is credible at all, male and female characters will react differently to stimuli… because he doesn’t really believe his message; it’s just some words floating around on the top surface of his mind.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      “Speaking Truth To Power” isn’t.

      In my reading, it is common for minor antagonists to tell the protagonist that they and their familial connections are outmatched, so they should just stand still and let themselves be beaten to death. The protagonist, per formula, ignores this falsehood and deals with the antagonist.

      Grey goo is a falsehood about how well we can trust our fellows, even the ones we have major disagreements with. It is part of a wide range of story techniques that are perhaps intended by the left as a weapon. (Note the carve out in the demoralization for the dogma about the leftwing and revolutionary paths to victory.)

      Most mecha anime are absurdly wrong in their lies about ground strength, dust clouds, maintenance, effectiveness compared to conventional tanks and infantry, and failure at joints. Many mecha anime convey emotional truths, such as “if you will not fight, you cannot win”.

    • The idea may make you uneasy, but the fact is that you will communicate how you view the world through the stories you tell. The problem with Message Fiction isn’t that it communicates an idea of how the world works–the problem is that it subordinates storytelling to communicating an idea about how the world works.
      The problem with this idea, as it happens, is that a well-told story will usually convey how the world actually works without trying to do so.

      • I remember reading a mystery/thriller series where the stated intention of the author was undermined by the actual scenarios involved. As in, at one point her urban protagonists, with very specific viewpoints, were looking down on their poor benighted rural neighbors and their beliefs, noting how their viewpoints and presumed politics were so awful for them. And that entire point was undercut by the fact that the protagonists’ lives were awful. I mean, not just monetarily, and not just through the various tragedies in their lives that they had no control over, but through the parts of their lives that had to do with their attitudes and actions. I mean, we’re talking miserable SOBs with anti-aspirational lifestyles—and they’re pitying these rural folk who are, in all probability, much happier.

        I don’t think the author noticed because the unconscious bias showed through pretty strongly. It was pretty amusing to me, though.

      • BobtheRegisterredFool

        There are two filters, and it tends to take work to get something entirely false past both. These being the author’s perceptions and the reader’s taste. If you are at least moderately sane, you will accidentally fill in details with truth when you are looking for material. Pure weaponized falsehood tends to have a poisonous taste, which consumers will choose to reject, unless they have developed an appetite for it.

        If you make something and it is popular, there probably is at least some truth in it. More powerful probably means more truth.

        The stuff you put in on purpose is likely calculated, which may limit how truthful it can be. I’ve a conclusion to this thought, but 1) I can’t let myself finish because it sounds like hippie bullshit, and 2) I can’t calculate all the angles well enough to be sure I am saying something true.

      • My point is what I communicate is not necessarily truth. It is merely how I view the world at that moment, which isn’t necessarily the same thing. Under certain mindsets, I’ve stepped in the gray goo. I do not regard that as truth. I’m only conveying a bit of how I see the world at that point. No more, no less.

        • Don’t know if you’re a Christian or not, but sometimes the world has aspects of grey goo to it–the same Bible that has Proverbs also has Ecclesiastes. Sometimes, life is terrible people doing terrible things to each other, or decent people doing dumb things and making everything worse.
          The key is just not to wallow in it.

      • Good examples of this are Changeling’s Island and Troll Mountain; in the latter book, there is a short interview about how the author wanted a positive lesson taught – and I found that the message was neatly buried in the storytelling, thus easily absorbed because it was simply part of the flow of the tale.

  4. “You don’t always get what you pay for, but you always pay for what you get.”

    A big theme in my work is that people are free to make choices, but those choices have consequences, and those consequences aren’t always evident up front. What we do makes us who we are. In the end we become what we have chosen to be. Often we don’t even realize what have become until some crisis forces us to confront it.

    I use fantastic elements as a metaphor for these changes, with many of my characters becoming literally inhuman as a result of their actions.

  5. Kate Paulk

    I’d say it’s more that the things you truly believe tend to find their way into what you write. And in my case it tends to gravitate towards a combination of “what is human?”, “what is good?”, and “turning evil to the service of good”. One way or another those questions and ideas find their way into everything I write.

  6. If there is truth in my fiction, I’m too close to see it. But I aim for truth in my characters: they do what is right for them, not what I contrive for a plot. I may contrive events and circumstances (though I try to keep those plausible and not arbitrary), but the characters react to them. If I don’t get the reaction I want, then I change the story: either forward to a different ending, or else backward to build to what I wanted in the first place.

    But mostly forward. I seldom look back.

  7. BobtheRegisterredFool

    Yes. This. A thousand times times.

  8. There is hope.

    No matter how rotten the foundations, there’s a chance of finding (or making) somewhere firm to stand.

    No matter how low the vault, how heavy it presses, or how fast it falls, there is a chance of breaking through to clear skies.

    No matter how impenetrable the darkness, there is light somewhere, even if only in your own heart.

    My truths. Sometimes I cling to them more with faith than with reason. 😉

  9. The demand to tell lies about humanity in fiction is one of my biggest pet peeves. The book I started reading this week began with a fencing match but the author emphasized that the participants were treating it as a real fight (elbows to the face, stepping on feet allowed, that kind of thing). The participants? A slim woman, a tall guy, the slim woman had more training but he was said to be catching up, so I was thinking the reason the match was included in the book was to show when physical advantages combines with just enough training to overcome superior skills. An interesting and true thing (you can be the best trained person on the planet at basketball but if you’re under six feet tall and you’re facing off against someone with the physical gifts of LeBron James it will not go well for you after he learns the basics) and I was intrigued. Partly by wondering how the author would manage the expectations of a readership who would be stunned by a man winning in those circumstances.

    So, of course, he tried to use his physical advantages, of course she turned out to have counters for them, and of course she easily used those counters to beat and humiliate him. Of course.

    True, I was an idiot for expecting anything else. The first rule of books for the last thirty years has seemed to be that if a man and a woman get into a confrontation no man can beat a woman at anything physical or mental and I should have remembered that rule. Sure, it would have been more interesting for him to finally win since she was his superior officer and the win would have created interesting conflicts (and if he’d used his physical advantages fully he could have made it a humiliating loss for her which would have made it even more interesting), but who needs conflicts? And drama? And unexpected results in fiction? Especially when you can repeat the same lies nearly everyone else has been telling in books for thirty plus years.

    Live in the glory of the Cliché, that’s what I say. While all the time declaring you’re doing something new and different. That’s the way to do it.

    But then that’s the lies that many writers tell themselves, that by writing from a checklist they are fighting some nebulous ‘something’ and are doing something unique and profound while in truth churning out the same kind of thing every other writer of that ilk is producing.

    It is possible that the cliché the author opens the book with is a set up wherein the male character will eventually beat the female character but since this is book published by a major SF house I’m not holding my breath. Nor am I sure I will read long enough to find out. Not because of the cliché but because it seems ‘safe’, like the author makes safe choices. I could be wrong, I’d like to be wrong, hopefully he manages to keep my attention long enough to show me I was wrong.

    Steve

    • Joe in PNG

      Good old fashioned Waif- Fu (not to be confused with waifu). Hollywood has always been a fan of unrealistic fight sequences, from “Flynning” with swords, brawls that leave no hands broken or faces bruised, and the horror that is the movie gunfight. Now the hip thing is the belief that a 98 pound waif can easily kung-fu larger dudes without breaking her hand, or getting bloodied in return. Annoying, but just part of the tradition.

      • Draven

        Because there’s no physical differences between womyn and men, you know… men are just a little bigger. They aren’t actually stronger or anything.

    • I was watching Fast and Furious No. something or other last night, and the fight scenes were pretty good. At one point, two women were fighting each other, while at the same time two good guys (men) were trying to bring down the bad guy. The scenes were decent and went on for a bit. After a certain point I said, “you know, the women should fight the men because the women always beat the men. Everyone knows that.” Alas, we were stuck with two evenly matched women, and the evenly matched male trio fighting. (Love “waif-fu.”)

    • Luke

      I’m just chivalrous enough not to want to see a male character beat the snot out of a female character.
      Therefore I very much want to see female characters actively avoiding melee combat.

  10. One of my “truths” that I see in my stories is that controlling other people isn’t a good. It’s not in all of them, but it’s in enough that I realized it at some point.

  11. I think what comes out in my stuff is that integrity is good.

  12. This puts me in mind of something from a while back. I’ve posted this at least once either her or on According to Hoyt, but it seems to get to the heart of the matter at least for me. A little background. A well known author had looked back on her famous work and said she should have done something differently. For most of those here, not so big a deal. We all learn from previous works. For a Facebook group I was on at the time (no longer it’s in skew hard left and die cycle, though without the paycheck aspect.) this brought forth a rash of ‘oaths’ most of them along the lines of ‘I’ll never betray my fans this way!’ and then going down hill from there. Most of them were rather seriously (and angrily) made. Few of them seemed worth the passion. Which got me to thinking about why we tell the stories and what our purpose is on a broad level. This was the oath I made there and it seems to answer the question Brad posed here:

    I will tell the tales that are needed to the people who need them.
    I will tell the tales of truth, for it is often in myth and legend that Truth is most easily seen.
    I will tell the tales of others with respect, for it is given to me to see they are remembered.
    I will tell tales of light in times of darkness.
    I will tell tales of joy in times of sorrow.
    I will tell tales of warning in times of decadence.
    I will tell tales of wisdom in times of folly.
    I will tell tales of humility in times of arrogance.
    I will tell tales of courage in times of danger.
    I will tell tales of remembrance in times of grief.
    I will tell tales of hope in times of despair.
    Where people are down cast I will lift them up.
    Where people are forgetful I will remind them of who they are.
    I will remember that my duty is to the tale, the truth, and the people.
    I will pray daily for the strength, the wisdom, and the skill to do my duty as a bard.

    I don’t go for nit picky details as aspects of ‘truth’. Hope, joy, goodness, courage… these are all truths that get too little screen and page time these days. Only time will tell how well I succeed.

    • TRX

      > Hope, joy, goodness, courage… these are all truths that get too little screen and page time these days.

      At best, many modern readers shift uncomfortably. At worst, they make duck noises.

      Having no fixed principles of their own, some people delight in attacking the honor of others.

      Some of the reviews I’ve seen of Keith Laumer’s work, or Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino”, might as well have leaked through from some alternate universe.

      On the other hand. there’s no way to appease such people short of capitulation, so you might as well stand proud and spread hope, joy, goodness, and courage, even if they choose not to acknowledge it.

  13. I like to play with ideas. When I started writing, I had a weird fantasy thing that I never intended to publish. So, playing with ideas, I took the battle of the sexes and extrapolated it into a fantasy, where the witches had nothing to do with men apart from the brief biological necessity, and the mages pretended they didn’t really need women. The wizards were solitary and didn’t need anyone. The Gods realized they were messing things up with their interference and withdrew.

    It was fun to write stories in this world, because my subconscious took over, and my subconscious believes in human nature. So my witch girls and the young mages were forever falling in love to the horror of their parents, the wizards sort of hung around other people and the Gods still cared enough to answer prayers in dire circumstances.

    So after creating a world that was a lie, I guess my truth, my understanding of human nature keeps sneaking through. I suppose if I wrote the same story in a world where this was normal, it would have been, umm, pink goo? Probably no better than grey goo, just different.

    • Human nature showing through like that is why the entire series has worked for me as a reader. Without that, the witches would just be less powerful versions of Mercy.

    • mrsizer

      I’d never looked at it that way. I’ll keep that in mind on the next re-read (yes, there’s been one, already).

  14. I like to include principles as themes in my writing. Things like honesty, trust, and dedication. Faith in the good side of human nature, and the power of doing the right thing, even when it’s hard. One fun part of writing is that you can make it arbitrarily hard on characters to push them beyond where real people might break in order to give them a success of epic proportions.

  15. Currently, I’m playing with Absolute Power. And What If, of course.

    As the old saw goes, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Really?

    So I said, what if you dropped absolute power on some random guy. If he was smart enough to see the consequences of his actions, what would he do?

    What would it take to have absolute power and NOT be corrupted?

    • Not to have it for very long.

    • mrsizer

      We share a theme. The short stories (for now) getting from “now” (~2100) to “then” (~2800) are all about figuring out that system – and why it’s necessary for someone/group to have (near) absolute power in the first place. The story is set in “then” when it’s all been working for a century or so.