Neil Gaiman, author of Coraline, American Gods, Good Omens, and countless other novels, as well as writer of comics, films, poetry and journalism, says, about fiction and fiction writers: "We're using memorable lies. We're taking people who do not exist and things that did not happen to those people in places that aren't, and we're using those things to communicate true things to each other."
As a writer, I understand what he’s saying, because I approach what I write in much the same way. As authors, we're always using fiction to tell the truth. We may approach how we create our fictive worlds differently, but the act of fiction writing is, in essence, creating make believe characters involved in make believe (or real) events, and telling their stories in ways that unfold as we so desire. There’s more to it craft-wise, obviously, but in those stories, if done right, universal truths are ideally being communicated to readers.
James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Anton Chekov and others have been quoted as positing this view on writing: “In the particular is contained the universal.” What they mean is that universal truths and/or experiences, i.e., pain, love, loss, the concept that you can’t return home again (because the home you remember no longer exists), and other themes in fiction that affect the characters (and people in real life) are things everyone, at some point in their lives, feel. When we write, we write about characters, not about the “concept” of love or loss or pain in a “general” way. That comes from what happens in our work. What we do is we put our characters in situations where they want something, struggle to get it, and then either experience a win or a loss. Experienced writers understand this; beginning writers learning the craft, often don’t.
Beginning writers (and this is NOT meant to pick on them ((or you, if you’re a beginning writer)), oftentimes miss, or aren’t sure how to get to the point where they understand the concept of writing the specific to reach the largest audience, i.e., the “universal.” I remember one time, decades ago, I was in a beginning creative writing class. A young writer had written a story about two people who went about their day, seeking their soulmate (I think that’s what the story was about, but I could be wrong). Anyway, the premise of the story was that they were perfect for each other, that if they had the chance to meet they would fall madly in love, etcetera, etcetera. But fate would not allow it. Fate had them repeatedly missing each other time and again. One of the characters would make a left turn just as the other turned right, or they would close the door behind them a second before the prospective soulmate walked into the room. It was one thing after another.
Now, the writer’s story wasn’t about love or loss, nor was the conclusion the two of them finally meeting—it was all about the missed encounters. But missed encounters, while certainly common in daily life, isn’t a story; the story is the loss the characters feel when they go home alone. The story is the desire for a love that never materializes, and how each character deals with the loneliness. In their pain, in their despair, we, the reader, empathize with them, because we have all, at one time or another, felt that same aloneness. That is the universal “thing,” as writers, we’re shooting for. The concept of “love” is not a story; the story is person X wants to love person Y, and/or vice versa, but something gets in the way, something that will not deter X or Y from continuing on their quest. We all know that story.
As readers, as human beings, we’re curious. We read about characters, and we want to understand why they do what they do. As my friend and writer, John Dufresne, says, "Life is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense."
The way we as authors make our writing make sense is by telling a story about someone specific (or a group of specific people, if we’re using the first-person plural “we,” like Joshua Ferris does in Then We Came to the End). We take a protagonist, let’s call her Savannah, and we make her want something like, say, a new car. She goes online to BuyaCar.com, plugs in a few of her preferences, and clicks “Submit.” A couple seconds later, voilà! Savannah has a search results page with fifty cars in her price range. Easy enough. Yes, she can click on a car and buy it and the story is over. Maybe some of us are lucky enough to be in that position. But that isn’t much of a story. So, what’s the story? And how do we, as writers, make Savannah’s story appeal to the masses?
Well, to do that, Savannah must struggle in one way or another. Maybe she doesn’t have enough money. Maybe she only has half a downpayment. Maybe she has three kids, and bills that she’s just barely able to pay because she isn’t making enough money at her job. Sound familiar? Maybe it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, good for you. But there are plenty of people out there struggling who it does sound familiar to. In this sense, Savannah’s struggle is one a lot of readers can relate to. Her struggle is a universal one, because a lot of people live paycheck to paycheck like our hero Savannah.
Now, we wouldn’t say, “Savannah doesn’t have the money to buy a car.” Or we might, but what we’d do as writers is show the actions Savannah takes to get the money she needs to buy the car. We show her pulling back on the amount of Starbucks vanilla lattes she has each morning. We watch her putting the money aside, and we watch her stack of hundreds grow. Great. She’s getting closer to her goal of buying the car. But then one of her children has an accident. Savannah, already struggling financially, now has to use her latte money to pay for hospital bills. Sound familiar? For most of us, it does. It may not be exactly like Savannah’s problem, but in some form or fashion we’ve probably lacked the funds to do something we wanted to do at some point in our lives.
Or maybe it’s something else. Maybe our protagonist has a crush on someone at work. Richard, the new VP of Sales, is tall, dark, and handsome, like the cliché of what every woman on earth is looking for. He’s single, well-off, athletic, ivy-league educated, and more than that, he’s a great guy. And he’s funny! Our protagonist, Leslie, makes sure she passes his office multiple times a day. She introduces herself, tells Rich if he ever needs anything, anything at all, she’s right around the corner. Maybe she emails him the work calendar, you know, just as a courtesy (HR always forgets to forward the calendar!). And so on.
Leslie, at her desk, can already see the future. She and Richard are on vacation, enjoying each other’s company somewhere in the Caribbean. Or maybe they’re in Bali, sipping Kintamani coffee the morning after visiting the Uluwatu Temple, where they hold hands and laugh at the corny jokes they tell one another. She can’t help but smile, she’s so happy.
Wanting to see his face, she passes by his office. Only when she walks by this time his door is closed. Sarah, from accounting, is in there, and she’s twirling her hair while sitting on Richard’s desk. She’s wearing a short skirt and Richard is laughing. He may even be blushing. She watches Sarah rest her hand gently on top of Richard’s. No question about it—they’re flirting! Leslie walks off. She goes to the bathroom, locks herself in a stall and flushes the toilet to mask her suffering.
Obviously, Leslie is devastated. The fantasy she’s created for herself and Richard has been destroyed. Maybe this isn’t the first time Sarah’s moved in on the new hot guy that Leslie’s had her eye on. Leslie is hurt, but she’s also mad at Sarah for interfering. You get the point. It hurts. The dreams Leslie had for herself, however far-fetched, have come crumbling down. In life, that happens. And that’s why we feel so deeply Leslie’s pain—because there’s a good chance something similar has happened to us.
THAT is the universal in the specific. While we’re watching a particular romantic heartbreak (Leslie’s), we’re relating to it because at some point in our lives, we’ve had the same thing happen to us. It makes Leslie’s story interesting. It makes us, as readers, want to know what happens next, because we know what happened to us when we went through what she’s going through, and it sucked. As writers, we know it will get worse, but as human beings, we’re hoping for something better.
We're using memorable lies. We're taking people who do not exist and things that did not happen to those people in places that aren't, and we're using those things to communicate true things to each other. --Neil Gaiman
Now, while Leslie’s story is one that’s very familiar to all of us in some way, it’s still a product of our imagination as writers. None of what happened to Leslie has really happened to her. So in theory, we’ve “lied” to our readers. We’ve lied, because Leslie doesn’t really exist. She’s a figment of our imagination. She may be a character based on our own experiences, or what one of our friends has gone through, or maybe we saw something in a movie that got us thinking about a story like Leslie’s, and we wrote our own take on it. We’re familiar with what it’s like, working in a corporate environment, but only in Miami, and only in the auto industry. So, what do we do? We relocate our office building to Ypsilanti, and we change the industry we’re in. We don’t like the name Leslie (we know someone named Leslie), so we change her name to Marie. Our sister works in the auto industry, and she’ll think the story is about her, so we change our business to software, in particular software used in the book publishing industry.
Again, it’s one lie after the next. But we’re writers, and that’s what we do. We “lie.” We fabricate. We embellish. But we do it all with the goal of writing a story that readers will enjoy, because we take our readers down into the weeds. We’re in the nitty gritty of things, and that’s where we, as people in the real world, live. And it’s what we find compelling in the short stories and books we read. It’s why we keep reading. As readers, we want to know how bad it gets for Marie. We want to see Richard’s love affair with Sarah blow up. Because when it does, it’ll make us feel better about all the times we ourselves were rebuffed. It’ll give us that slightly selfish enjoyment of getting revenge on the person that hurt us, even if it’s all just in our heads.
Fiction, remember, is about people. It’s about the trials and tribulations our characters experience, their goals and failures and resilience. It’s about getting knocked down and getting back up, only to get knocked back down again. It’s about pain and suffering, and about the wonderful achievements our characters sometimes get to experience. It’s about love and loss, victories and defeats, familial strife, and disappointment. These things are the important and impactful issues in the lives of all of us. As readers, we want to know that we’re not alone. We want to know that everyone, in some way, suffers from the same ills and maladies and unrequited love and post traumatic stress and, well, everything and anything that disturbs or disrupts the already trying lives we live. If we can’t relate to the characters in the fiction we’re reading, we stop reading. It’s that simple.
Life is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense.
Yes, fiction is a lie. But the lie is, ironically enough, only in the specifics. The lies are in the names of the characters we’ve chosen. The lies are in how the actions that occur transpire in the way that they do. The lie is that none of what we’re writing has happened, at least not exactly in how we’ve put it down, because we change things slightly, or we misremember how the things we’re writing about really occurred.
Growing up, our parents told us not to lie. In writing, that’s exactly what we must do. We lie, because lying is how we create the fictional worlds we create, and it’s how we discover the truth of who our characters are and what they’re going through. In those lies, in the things that happen to our characters, we see ourselves, and we’re glad that we aren’t going through what our characters are going through. And if our readers get lost in those lies, if they feel for the characters in those lies, then we, as writers, have done our job. And that, my fellow writers, is no lie.
Cully Perlman is an author and editor. To contact him about editing your novel, reach out at Cully@novelmasterclass.com