In the acknowledgements section of my recently-released novel, Middleshade Road, I talk about how fiction comes about. Here’s an extract:
Some books are just stories — which is fine and proper — but some are more like confessions. It’s wise not to confuse one with the other, or to try and force a square peg into a round hole. If you do, it’ll fight you.
Middleshade Road was the toughest book I’ve written so far. It was difficult to write because the book had a different opinion than I did on what its own essence was. Its perspective was fixed and constant; a certainty, whereas mine had to undergo a journey to reach consensus. It took a lot longer than I wanted it to, but probably not much longer than necessary. Some stories are lies that tell the truth.
There are also, of course, many stories that are try-outs, to see if it’s possible to learn something from a scenario you’ve yet to encounter, just by using your imagination to immerse yourself in it. Figuring out which category a tale falls into can be tricky for the reader, and even for the writer.
It’s too easy to agonise over where the line is. My feeling is that all fiction is both false in the overall factual sense, and also true in terms of being a genuine expression of something that’s intrinsic to the author, and will thus hopefully resonate with the reader. That’s the sort of accuracy to aim for: the larger truth of being the best expression you can create for the particular tale you’re telling. Authenticity in fiction has little to do with veracity, and nor should writers feel shackled to facts.
People will ask if a particular character is based on them — usually hoping that the answer is no — or they’ll tentatively ask whether a certain event really happened. The answer lies in the question, I think: if it prompted the enquiry, then it resonated with the reader and made them wonder. That’s usually the result of, if not factual truth, then at least the authenticity that good fiction requires; writing that comes from the heart, and was sparked by something, even if the source bears no similarity to its expression on the page.
Indeed, I’d go so far as to offer you this thought: if the tale doesn’t stray far from the actual facts, then it’s often not the truest story that it could be. Life doesn’t make for compelling fiction, and its the job — and the duty — of the writer to bridge the gap between the two by making something truer than the truth. The villain we can empathise with, if not sympathise; the plot that lines up and makes sense; and the ending that satisfies. Real life doesn’t provide those very often, but fiction must.
If you ask a writer about the biggest lie they’ve ever told, and they’re really honest about it, you’ll always get the same answer. It’s the one on the copyright page, that starts with “Any similarity to…”.