A day or say ago, I was asked for my opinion one something that I’m really not an expert on. I gave said opinion, of course, but I had to question the asker as to why they wanted my opinion. They simply told me: “Because I knew you’d be honest.”
That simple statement blindsided me.
I’m a writer. An embellisher. A teller of tall tales. I spinner of half truths and a fabricator of calculated deceit. I make things up, I retell the same story with different details, and I elaborate on situations that never happened. All on paper, of course. But, as any good tradesman knows, it’s hard not to bring your work home with you sometimes. Especially when your occupation is, to put it extremely simply, lying. I can’t imagine how difficult it might be to look a professional storyteller in the eye and try to figure out whether or not they are telling the truth.
Being told that someone knew I would be honest with them, despite all that, got me thinking long and hard about what it means to be an honest writer.
I don’t write nonfiction. That’s not to say that I can’t, but it’s not my cup of tea. I feel much more freedom in the ability to convey a message, a lesson, a feeling, or a sensation when I have complete creative license over the course of events. I refer back to my articles about making these happenings organic, which I have now been led to believe is the true key to honesty in fiction.
Honesty in fiction doesn’t mean you can’t make up a story. It doesn’t mean you can’t dream up a plotline and completely imaginary characters. It doesn’t mean you have to base everything in reality and only tweak the details. No, being honest in fiction means staying true to the purpose of your story and being frank and upfront with the reader about your intentions. That all might seem a little confusing, so allow me to explain.
First off, as we know, every story has a purpose. In fiction, we most often find that writers seek to entertain the reader at the same time that they are making a statement about some state of affairs in the human condition, be it love, life, sorrow, death, happiness, or whatever. It is of my opinion that, in order to be honest in your fiction, you must clearly define your purpose right off the bat. If your story is about love, let us know. If it’s about life, let us know. I don’t mean tell me “this is a story about _____,” I mean show me what your story is about. Preferably in the first few chapters. Take John Green’s Looking for Alaska, for instance: Green comes out and just tells you (in Miles’ narration) that the book is about the search for a “Great Perhaps.” That, right there, is complete honesty with the reader, in fiction. The entire exposition of the novel is based around Pudge’s search for that very thing; there are no questions about Green’s intentions. Of course, there are a number of other themes and messages communicated, but those are all revealed up front as well. Does that mean your purpose can’t be intense, complicated, or ambiguous? Absolutely not! You cannot, however, change themes or surprise the reader with some hidden message at the end. Readers need time to digest, often over the entire course of an entire book, so don’t blindside them.
Another vital element of honest fiction is not only creating realistic characters, but staying consistent in their moods, actions, thoughts, and dialogue. As you read a book, you get to know the characters pretty well, and readers can immediately tell if you ever have them act or react in a way that is unsuitable to their character. A shy girl won’t suddenly come out of her shell because she meets some hot boy toy. A rebellious, self centered boy won’t suddenly open up about his feelings to a total stranger. People are people, and your characters (assuming they are people) should behave like real people do. If they don’t you are essentially lying to your reader in claiming that they are, in fact, people. There’s nothing a reader hates more than a character who is shallow in their personality traits; make them strong, be bold! If you’re “telling the truth” about a character, their actions and words will always be consistent with their principals.
Finally, honest fiction honestly discusses honest issues. Confusing, right? “Feel-good fiction” being the exception (stories that really don’t contain much substance and only serve to entertain), storytellers have been using made up stories to, again, bring social issues to light since the beginning of storytelling history. That’s perhaps one of the main reasons I enjoy writing teen fiction so much: there are so many issues to discuss, and teens are far more receptive to new ideas than adults. Perhaps more importantly, teenagers are (in my opinion) lied to more than anyone else in modern society. Adults will tell a teenager just about anything to get them to conform to their own ideas of acceptance, morality, perception, or reality. teachers do it. Parents do it. The media does it. In fact, right now we are seeing a huge push in the United States where politicians are targeting teenagers with lies.
In such a world, I wish to be (maybe) the outspoken force that tells it how it is. I write about substance abuse, bullying, depression, rebellion, growing up, and all that good stuff as they are relevant to the average teenager. I don’t generally write about things like self-harm, eating disorders, and teen pregnancy because the effect a smaller portion of the teen population and (going back to honesty), I really don’t feel comfortable writing about it because I have had much different experiences with those three than many others. Anyway, the point is that you can’t be honest with your readers if you aren’t going to be forthright about the issues you chose to discuss. Girls don’t magically stop self-harm because a good-looking guy decided to talk to them. Teens don’t typically rebel against parents who give them freedom, and parents don’t just ignore them when they do. Teens have sex and it’s awkward, not beautiful. They drink and they get sick, they smoke and it makes them cough and throw up. Adolescence is hell, really, and you can’t lie to a teenage and pretend it’s not. What you can do, though, is be up front with them and lead them through it. Or, at least give it a shot.
That’s my little ranting revelation for the night. Really, though, try to be honest, as a writer. People notice.
‘Til next time,