With so much happening in the news these days, I’ve been thinking a lot about truth. What is truth, exactly? Is it an objective fact that can be validated by concrete evidence, or is truth an abstract construct that gleans its meaning from the emotional experiences of an individual? Judges and cops will tell you, for every witness they question they hear a different version of the story. At what point do the fact-based truths and personal truths collide? More importantly, should we weave them into our fiction?
For example, Josephine Bonaparte climbed in status from daughter of a meager sugar plantation owner to empress of France. Much of her climb involved hopping from man to man in search of stability, but she also had an eye for power. While promiscuity and “using” people isn’t something I necessarily condone, I still portrayed her as not only sympathetic, but likable. For one thing, it’s important to understand the context of the times. The French Revolution was a tumultuous and volatile time, so following the line of power not only meant her debts would be paid, but it meant she could avoid a date with Madame Guillotine. (She came within a hair’s width as it was.) The other issue was, her first husband financially abandoned her and their children, leaving her with no means to support herself. What choice did a woman of her social standing have?
Through my portrayal of this woman, my personal truth is clear: judgment should be rendered with care—or not rendered at all. In order to grasp why someone makes the choices they do, you have to understand the pressures they face, their traumas, and their belief systems. You have to, in a sense, become them. How would you feel in their shoes? Context always plays a part as well. Through the use of evidence-based facts as well as my personal truth, I have illustrated a vibrant picture of a fascinating woman. It may be weighted with feelings over facts, but it is a truth nonetheless.
Why is it important to take a stance in your fiction? To relate some sort of greater message through themes as well as your characters external and internal actions (and inaction)?
Because speaking your truth—taking a stance—is really the meat of your author voice. The banana in your banana split.
What the author has to say about certain aspects of life (philosophically and otherwise) bleeds into their narrative. You could also say the author’s backstory is funneled onto the page. Mix this philosophy and backstory with personal style and you have author voice. THIS is what readers connect to, either subconsciously or overtly.
Speaking your truth doesn’t mean every character sounds the same. A few notes on this:
- Stay true to your MC’s personality. A skilled writer can create a solid, believable character no matter how different they are from the author, yet still weave in the messages he/she wishes to convey. Perhaps the writer accomplishes this through supporting characters—antagonists, best friends, lovers, etc. There are many ways here.
- Cherry-pick the messages that make sense to the plot. Don’t force it. If you’re forcing a theme, it will feel phony and awkward to a reader.
- Take care not to come off preachy or pedantic, and avoid talking down to your readers. It’s insulting and ultimately a turn-off. As a historical fiction author, I must “teach the reader” without the book reading like nonfiction, as well as avoid the pitfall of making it come off like I have an agenda.
- Consider what makes sense for your genre and style. There’s a range of “truth-telling” in different kinds of books. We have the Kurt Vonnegut, Chuck Palahniuk, and Tom Robbins end of the spectrum in which the very story itself serves as a vehicle to demonstrate their philosophy. On the opposite end, we have the romance sector in which the characters are of the utmost importance. “Truth-telling” is a by-product. Loretta Chase for example, makes it clear that intelligent women are the heroines of their own lives, though one gleans this through a humorous tale of love with a happily ever after. No style is better than the other. It’s all about your goal, your voice, and your genre. Just remember to make the message poignant and relatable or it’s lost.
- Be careful not to confuse plot and character voice with author voice. They aid each other, but they are not one and the same. (This is a post for another day.)
This voice that you develop will begin to emerge outside of your pages as well—in articles, in social media, and in discussions, panels, or speeches. This is what your readers come to expect and seek out: your very unique perspective set off by your very unique style.
Which leads me to a rather philosophical question:
When a strong sense of voice is missing, does this mean the author has no opinions of their own, no personal truths? Perhaps the writer’s skills simply haven’t developed enough. It could also be a question of the writer not being bold enough to speak his/her mind. It’s too risky. OR, maybe the writer doesn’t know themselves very well at all….
What do you think? Should a writer speak their truths through their fiction, or are our works little to no indication of who we are as people?