Truth in Fiction

Fiction is made up, right? It comes straight from the imagination of the author, so why discuss truth? In reality, authors deal with two types of truth—factual events and emotions. I write historical fiction, so I have a responsibility to my readers to research the time period and events I include in my novels. It’s the emotional truth, however, that makes my novels resonate with modern readers

Plenty of readers love to read historical fiction to catch the author on the history. Anyone who has studied an event, however, realizes that there are many truths in retelling it. This is why a police officer questions every witness they can find. Depending on where someone was standing, their view of the events vary widely. Countries can see history differently, too. One of the reasons novels about World War II continue to be popular is that authors are writing about real people whose stories haven’t been told (like the women, but that’s another post). Mimi Schwartz, an award-winning author, says authors, “…must think of truth as having a small ‘t’, not a big one–as in my truth rather than the truth.” 

When I research for my books, I attempt to portray events from my character’s point of view. I cannot include anything that happens outside that character’s world. For example, when I wrote about the Pearl Harbor attack in The Aloha Spirit, I included the planes flying over Punch Bowl, and the view of the harbor from there, because that’s where my character lived. I couldn’t include what was happening on the mainland, or on other islands, nor could I write about what the military was doing. My character couldn’t possibly have knowledge of those perspectives, so it couldn’t be included.

Novels are more than a recitation of events, though. The character’s emotional journey is what hooks a reader and compels them to keep reading, to react to the book, to recommend it to their friends. An author must show a truth that the reader can relate to. Author Stephen King, in his book On Writing, says, “Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.”  So an author is free to make up a world, a character, an event, but ultimately the story must resonate with an internal truth held by the reader. Characters should be rewarded for choosing the right path and enduring to the end. Good should eventually overcome evil. Despite sometimes horrific experiences, the story should inspire and encourage the reader.

My books are written about my ancestors. Sometimes all I know of them are the dates and events that were recorded, like birth, death, marriage, births of children. If I’m lucky, I know they fought for suffrage, or had a bad marriage, or lived in the same place as a famous person. In every case, though, I have to imagine how a real person would have reacted to the situation, based on what I know of attitudes of the time and human nature. Some early readers asked why my character in The Aloha Spirit, who is in an abusive marriage, didn’t leave her husband. She was Catholic and it was the 1930s. That is not how a woman who married into a Portuguese Catholic family would have reacted. Seeing the world through a 21st century lens is a common failing for authors of historical fiction, but that is also another post.

In closing, I want to leave you possibly my favorite essay about different truths. First, by Ryan Van Meter, is told from a five-year-old’s point of view and shows his first love, his first time proposing marriage, his first rift with his mother, his first understanding of gender roles, and his first heartbreak. It still has a powerful impact on me. 

Linda Ulleseit is the author of the award-winning The Aloha Spirit (She Writes Press, 2020) and Under the Almond Trees (2014). Her next novel will be published by She Writes Press in 2023.

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