The Truth in Fiction
by Mona Hodgson
Many of my closest friends are liars. But they might prefer the title storyteller extraordinaire. Tale-weavers. And whether the literary yarn they spin is set in an actual place or based upon real life events and historical characters, they are authors of fiction. I am too. And as novelists, we have chosen to write fiction, not fact. But even so, is the story we weave truly and completely made up?
Not the best stories. All compelling fiction resonates with readers. Why? Because the best stories are rich in truth.
Why has Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell camped on bestsellers’ lists? Why has it inspired movies and s
pin-offs? Why is Gone with the Wind a classic? Because the story told the truth. Even though Scarlett’s tale wasn’t necessarily formed in actual reality, the setting and characters, action and themes offer a tapestry of honesty that can make a work of fiction feel more real, at times, than life itself.
Using those four central threads of fiction, I try to create an honest story world and premise that will provide a platform for truth and deepen the realness of my fiction.
As the backdrop for the action, the setting anchors a story in a specific time and place. How can setting add truth to fiction?
You and I are affected by the location in which we find ourselves. We react to our setting on physical, emotional, mental, and perhaps even spiritual levels. Sometimes we’re aware of our reactions. At other times they take place in our subconscious.
Where is your story set? At a plantation in Georgia?
Tell me more.
Actually, it’s Tara, a cotton plantation Scarlett’s father named after the Hill of Tara, once the capital of the High King of ancient Ireland.
Through the Civil War and into the reconstruction period.
That’s more like it. The time period in which a story unfolds has everything to do with the setting. And that’s true whether it plays out in a historical time and place or if it’s contemporary. Setting isn’t limited to a pin on a map, but also provides a cultural, social, and political context in which the characters act, interact, and react. Consider the West Coast of America in contrast to the South. Ireland in the1600s and the USA in that same time period. What about settings where women are finally able to vote? And post 9/11? These events will be considered and remembered differently, depending upon the setting and situation in which the characters experience them.
That’s something an author has to consider . . . what is the main character’s surface and gut-level reaction to the details and fullness of the setting? A clearly defined setting will impact their characters, and, consequently us as readers because we will recognize honesty in the setting.
My Sinclair Sisters of Cripple Creek Series is set in a mining camp in Colorado in the late 1890s. There are many truths intrinsic to that specific time and place—the culture of the Wild West mining camps. Ore fever, most definitely. Prostitutes, certainly. And hardships in varying sizes and shapes.
Scarlett O’Hara was fake only when she chose to be to serve her purposes. Otherwise, she was one of the most “real” characters we’ll find in literature. An individual through and through, Scarlett was bathed in the truth of human nature—replete with strengths and weaknesses, self-centered pursuits and dogged determination in the company of tragedy. A character’s inner conflict is what invokes honesty.
Margaret Mitchell imbued Scarlett, a multi-dimensional character, with a clearly defined goal—to win Ashley’s heart, and then to save Tara and win Rhett Butler back. We watched Scarlett’s desires unfold and change and deepen, along with the setting in which she found herself.
How does an author draw truth out of a character? We saw it with Scarlett. It’s through the fascination and friction inherent in human relationships (fictional ones included) that reveals true character. And that’s true whether those secondary characters are love interests, antagonists, sidekicks, or mentors. They provide a means for readers like you and me to see the main character’s vulnerabilities and strengths.
As I plan a story, I have to determine what it is that my main characters want. What must he or she achieve or overcome? Why? Where lies their motivation? What is at risk if he or she doesn’t meet their goal? What will happen if their objective changes?
Two Brides Too Many tells the story of Kat and Nell, two sisters who came out west from Portland, Maine as mail order brides. What drove them to make that choice? In Too Rich for a Bride, Ida the oldest Sinclair sister arrived in Cripple Creek with the dream of being a businesswoman. What planted that dream in her?
If I “flesh out” the character and her journey and outcome, I find myself writing truth in fiction.
The story consists of a series of actions inspired by a character’s goal and motivation, driven by his or her interactions with others, and deepened by the roadblocks they face, which may in part be inherent to the setting they find themselves in.
For instance, Two Brides Too Many is set in a mining camp on the southwestern slopes of Pikes Peak in 1896. In that time period, most of those towns were still made of wood. Those that were went up in flames at least once and, most of them, many times before the town’s people chose to rebuild using brick and stone. Kat Sinclair encounters one of those fires in Cripple Creek, which serves as a key plot point in her journey, fueling action on her part and on the secondary characters with whom she interacts.
Basically, plotting is the action a character takes to overcome the obstacles and work through the conflict that stands in the way of him or her reaching their goal. Gone with the Wind is resplendent with such action.
I want my readers to discover truth about themselves, the world, God, and others as they relate to and interact with my characters. The theme provides the walk-away value in the story. What central truth do I want my readers to recognize in the setting, the characters, and the action and take with them when they close my book?
My job then is to develop my characters fully and allow them to struggle naturally and passionately, letting my theme emerge out of the “realness” of the characters’ situations.
Margaret Mitchell didn’t break into the story to tell us the themes of Gone with the Wind. Through setting, characters, and action, she showed us triumph over tragedy and strength in love. In Two Brides Too Many, I showed God making a way through the wilderness for those who placed their trust in Him. Ida Sinclair struggles to realize where her true priorities lie in Too Rich for a Bride. In The Bride Wore Blue, shame nearly suffocates Vivian, the youngest of the four sisters, until she learns that God’s grace is all-sufficient.
The message or moral of a story will only ring true when the characters carry the theme with them on their journey from goal through conflict to resolution.
Where is the truth in fiction? Yes, it is in the details. But it is birthed deep within the writer. I’m trying to dig deep to create stories rich in authentic settings, characters, action, and themes. Thanks for reading!
MONA HODGSON is the author of more than thirty-two books for adults and children, including her popular Sinclair Sisters of Cripple Creek Series—Two Brides Too Many, Too Rich for a Bride, The Bride Wore Blue, and Twice a Bride (October 2012). Her children’s book titles include: Bedtime in the Southwest and six princess and desert I Can Read books. For more information about Mona and her books and for Writers Resources, visit her website at www.monahodgson.com. You can connect with Mona on Twitter and Facebook on her Mona Hodgson Author Page, https://www.facebook.com/Author.Mona.