Is It True? Revealing the Truth in Fiction

What is true? I’m fascinated by this idea of “true” and what is true. I just published my first book and many people ask me if it is “true.”

“It’s a novel,” I say.

“But is it true?” they say.

“Is what true?” I say.

“The book,” they say.

“It’s fiction,” I say.

“But, I mean, is it true?” they say.

“What is true?” I think. It’s true that I wrote a book. It’s true that some of the events, people and places in it are very much based on true people, places and things. And for me it is very true. True in its rawness, its voice, the feelings, the thoughts, the place, the characters. But is it true?

The book is fiction, which to me is a weaving together of all sorts of truths and “lies” and stories that are true and not so true to tell a bigger story and the bigger story is very true, but it’s not a true story. It’s a crafted story. It’s a piecing together of lots of different parts that make a story, and different characters that act in that story. I am one of the characters. What I mean is, to write the story, I step into one of the characters and then another and pretty soon all of them so they can move about freely in the story and talk and fight and interact with one another as they move the story forward.

The deeper story that I’m trying to tell is underneath all the true parts. It’s mixed in with the fictional parts and partly fictionalized parts. This underground, subtextual story is the one that I’m trying to find the whole time I’m writing. Maybe this is the one people are thinking about when they’re wondering whether the novel is “true.”

One of the characters in particular sounds a lot like me, if you know me. But she gets to do all sorts of things that I don’t and she’s at times extreme and heroic and dramatic and difficult, and she’s allowed to be. It’s freeing to become her. It’s liberating to walk through her life. It’s not necessarily or exactly true, but “what if” it were? And when I sat down to write this character that some people think sounds a lot like me, I didn’t sit down to write me on paper, which I actually think would be very tough to do. I created a place and had this character step into the place. And just as if I were an actor playing a part, I stepped into that place, too. I stepped into that character like I would step into any part I have ever played, never being afraid that people would think it was me. Just like on stage, I hoped that people would get confused as to whether I was really like this in “true” life, because then I would have achieved something authentic. I wasn’t afraid for that character to show her deepest, darkest secrets because I thought that would make for a rich character, and since that character was the main narrator, that was in fact a goal of mine. Even though I’m often afraid to show my deepest, darkest thoughts, I didn’t want this character to be afraid. I wanted this character to reveal herself in a very naked way, and I wanted people to feel like they were seeing her interior life. I wanted there to be a whole kind of intimacy about it, and I wanted it to be okay and this is true. But the more exposed and outrageous and unafraid I made this character, the more people seemed to be saying: “I see you in the character. She’s you.”

And then I thought, what is true? I thought of all the things this character does and says and wondered if people all saw this character as me, and believed I did all the things she does, even if they didn’t know me, and even if I didn’t sit down to write me on paper, I began to wonder what is true of me?

I wrote a book that was fiction. I didn’t write a memoir because to me a memoir is a story that you write after it has happened and you are reflecting back on how it changed you, which can be a really beautiful thing but not the story I wanted to tell. I wrote this story to see how writing this story could change me. There were true things going on in my life that were tragic for me. I wanted to see how I could write them to transform them into good, or even find the smallest kernel of good in them. I looked at things going on around me, and thought “what if?” What if “a” were true and that meant “b” could be true, too, and that meant I could change what is true for me?

There is so much truth in fiction and so much fiction in truth. When a story is really “true,” it cloaks the fiction in truth so well that you believe every word. I worked for several years trying to find the truth of this story. It started out with me working in a bar and writing down observations about the people and place. My voice started to take over and I let it. I stepped into a character and that character soon started to tell the story. It was a “true” story, but a lot of the people, places, and things were not true.

I don’t know what is “true” anymore, and I was so happy when I wrote this work that I didn’t have to worry about that. I know I worked in a bar and I wanted to be an actor more than anything. I know I had a friend who was diagnosed with a possibly fatal cancer and I wanted to create an authentic story about how these worlds might converge. I know I didn’t want to be restricted to what “really happened.” I know I wanted to explore what happens to people when they have a dream and they get so immersed in the work that they’re doing to pursue that dream that they become that thing that they’re working at.

The truth is not immutable. It’s ever changing, and the only time one should worry about the truth staying perfectly intact is when one is trying to “stick to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” – something I’m not particularly interested in doing. Had I presented my book as a non-fiction story I would have had to leave a lot of it out and tell a different story. If I insisted it was a “true” story, I believe I would have been challenged about whether or not it was “true.”

What is true? Once I set out to write a novel, I no longer worried about what was true, and what wasn’t true. I guess I’m thinking that’s the naughty, guilty, pleasure of fiction. I felt free and clear from what was actually true, and only worried about what would feel true, and that I agonized about – true story.

So, what is so important about the truth? The different shades of it, the way it walks and talks and looks and smells, the way you can capture a moment of it if you’re lucky, or watch it linger when you want it out of the room, the way it can slip through your slimy fingers if you’re not telling it.

Fiction writers are truth seekers because without truth, fiction writing is fake. But if a story is true because some of it really happened, does that mean it’s not really fiction? When we look at the fiction/nonfiction binary, we realize things are not either/or, but rather both: the dark reveals the light, the light reveals the dark, and all opposites share sameness.

I see fiction and non-fiction as inextricably linked, and I find comfort in blurring the lines between them. To me stories are what make the world keep on keeping on, and fiction writers make up stories about the world.

I think many people want to categorize which part of a story is true because it comforts them. But maybe what they’re really asking is, “What makes this a fictional story?” What comforts me is finding the things that make a story feel true: the choices that an artist makes to expose the underlying truth of a story or the story that they most need to tell.

The truth is in the art and craft of telling and showing because in fiction there is no absolute truth. So whether I’m writing about something that I’ve experienced myself, something I’ve watched someone else experience, or something I’ve learned about through research, I will reach deep to create the richest version of a story, and if that means blending fact and fiction, then I’m in.

So is my fiction book true? I think the next time somebody asks me, I’ll have to tell them, yes, it is – absolutely.

I hope they’ll forgive me if that’s not exactly true.

Julie Pepper Lim is the communications/office manager at Tikkun. Her first novel, Last Call, is available on Amazon.

1 thought on “Is It True? Revealing the Truth in Fiction

  1. Thank you, Julie for this article. I’ve written both fiction and non-fiction and you have captured the richness and complexity of truth-telling for writing fiction. I write to try to process and understand things that I’ve experienced, watched others experience or even things that I’ve read about happening that affect me deeply. It is about creating meaning out of all of it.

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