The Golden Rule of Fiction

By Randy Ingermanson

About twenty years ago, I was accepted into a small mentoring group led by Sol Stein, a famous novelist, playwright, publisher, and writing teacher. It was a great group and I enjoyed hanging out with so many talented novelists.

Sol had a recent book out, THE BEST REVENGE, and most of us in the group bought a copy. Sol, knowing that I’m a physicist, autographed mine as follows: “Physics = facts; Fiction = truth”

I’ve often thought of that over the years. A fair number of people think that fiction is the opposite of truth — it’s just something made-up that doesn’t mean anything. But Sol was right. Fiction is truth. Good fiction, anyway. It’s the truth about people. My only quibble with Sol was with the first half of his formula. Physics isn’t really about facts. Physics is about what lies behind the facts. Physics is truth, too. It’s a different kind of truth than fiction, but it’s truth.

The hardest part of fiction is telling the truth.

It’s very easy to misrepresent your characters. To fail to tell the whole truth about them. To reduce them to a caricature. But as a novelist, you can’t afford to do that. The problem is that you don’t always realize you’re doing it. It’s one of those things that you don’t know that you don’t know. It’s easier to see a caricature when you’re the one being caricatured. Because when somebody misrepresents YOU, you get angry.

Some examples from the usual fault lines will make this clear:

  • *If you’re a Democrat, then you get irritated when Republicans call you a big-spending, soft-on-crime panderer to the poor.
  • *If you’re a Republican, then you get irritated when Democrats call you a militaristic, greed-driven pawn of the big corporations.
  • *If you’re pro-choice, then you hate having the pro-lifers painting you as a baby-killer.
  • *If you’re pro-life, then you hate having the pro-choicers painting you as a Bible-thumper.

When somebody uses simplistic terms to misrepresent you, it makes you angry. You know good and well that you aren’t that way. You know that things are more complicated than that.

Now here’s the Golden Rule of Fiction:

Treat your characters the way you want to be treated.

You don’t want people misrepresenting you. Don’t do it to your characters.

If you intend to tell the truth about your characters,then you have to dive deep into them. You can’t settle for a cartoon level understanding. When a character
disagrees with you on some deeply held position, you have to play fair with him.

That’s hard.

When your character is WRONG about something, when you know he’s wrong, when it’s plain as day he’s wrong, when you just want to shake him and show him how wrong he is — that’s when you’re in the most danger of not playing fair.

It’s your job to understand your character. Even when he’s wrong.

It’s your job to become your character. To be wrong when you’re inside his skin. To believe (if only for a moment) that he’s right.

That’s treating your character the way you want to be treated. It’s playing fair.

Remember that only YOU are obligated to play fair. None of your characters have to. In fact, most of the time they won’t. Most of the time they’ll misunderstand each other. Most of the time, they’ll misrepresent each other. Most of the time, they’ll caricature each other.

That creates conflict, and conflict is good.

But when it’s just you and your character, alone on the page, then you have to do your utmost to put yourself inside her shoes. To see the world from her point of view, not yours.

Even if she’s wrong.

I think that’s part of what Sol meant when he said that fiction is truth.

**

This article is reprinted by permission of the author.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 32,000 readers.If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.

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