A couple of weeks ago I wrote about truth in fiction, the idea that Hemingway so simply and brilliantly expounded upon when he said that a good book is truer than if it had really happened. I also talked about how good fiction holds a mirror up to reality, showing us ourselves and our society.
I wanted to talk about these ideas a little bit more.
First, let me clarify that the truth I am talking about here is the universality of human experience–the power of human emotions, the crises that speak to you because you have felt those crises in your own heart, and the knowledge that we are not alone, separated forever inside our own heads. Fiction has the power to lift us out of that, and when you have that experience, you sense that you are experiencing a fundamental universal truth.
The idea that fiction can be truer than real life is a powerful one, but what does it mean? How can a lie by truer than reality?
It comes back to characters, and something I said about them in my earlier post. A character is not a person. Characters are like people, but they are not people. They are, in a sense, more pure.
A strong character is an expression of a belief, a need, a desire–a living motive on the page. Those beliefs, needs, and desires often come into conflict – sometimes with other characters, sometimes within the character. In fact, the most compelling characters usually have some form of that conflict within themselves. That’s why characters that are perfectly heroic and good are less effective at holding a reader’s attention, and characters with shady pasts are always more interesting. It makes for a more compelling story when a character wants to do the right thing, but it’s difficult because of the character’s own problems, baggage, commitments, debts, etc. That is to say, a competing motive.
It is interesting because it is a similar problem to what we as human being suffer all the time. Human beings are walking bags of conflicting emotions, desires, feelings, motives, beliefs, and so on. We struggle with these competing motives all the time. When we see a character struggling in the same way, we say, yes! It’s just like that!
But here’s the fundamental difference. A real person is an ever-changing, chaotic mass of those conflicting desires, beliefs, etc. A real person is infinitely more complicated than a character on a page, and that means there is a near infinite subtlety of nuance going on with our commonplace decision-making that often we cannot even figure out about ourselves. Most of our decisions and actions are based on subconscious desires and beliefs, or, if they are conscious decisions, then our motives are often extremely complicated, and every situation where those motives come into conflict is nuanced and different. We’re muddled, and our ongoing decision-making processes are so complex as to be nearly incomprehensible.
A character, on the other hand, is far less complicated. A character is made up of a few of those motives. It can be as few as one or as many as a half dozen, but rarely more. They may be conscious motives or subconscious motives, but they are clear and unmuddled. The character is driven by these pure, strong motives – either towards achievement of their goals or towards some disastrous failure – and the character’s decisions are comprehensible.
It’s this simplicity that separates us (people) from characters, but it is also what allows us to love and connect so intimately with them. Characters are what we want ourselves to be. We want to imagine that we are driven by these strong, pure motives. And sometimes we are! But most of the time, we’re far too messy and complicated to reflect pure motives in the way that a good character does.
The character is the simple, pure expression of an idea or of multiple competing ideas. That’s appealing. We see a reflection of ourselves, and also we wish that our own motives and decisions could be so strong and clear.
And that’s how fiction can be truer than real life. In real life, the truth is muddled in a morass of complexity. But in fiction, where we can see the pure reflections of ourselves and our complicated motives, we can see the truth more clearly.