Truth & Honesty in Fiction

The thing about the “blogosphere” is that it can allow for a lot of deep discussion of big issues, if we let it.  Every blogger has his or her own soapbox on which he can stand to proclaim his or her opinion.  And then there are comments where, if they’re smart, they let other people express their opinion.  Some of those commenters – most, these days – will be other bloggers, who can go back to their own blogs to spout their own opinions again, and so it goes, back and forth, round and round, and maybe eventually we arrive at the truth of the matter, or maybe we just reach a level of comfort with our beliefs after having had a critical look at them.

This is a conversation that, in this iteration, was started over on Lua Fowles’ Bowl of Oranges on Monday.  But this is my soapbox, so this is where I tell you what I think.  What I didn’t think was that I’d be doing a blog post on the topic.  But a comment by J.P. Cabit on Lua’s blog, and a subsequent comment that Janna T. left over on my Comment Policy page convinced me there’s more to explore on this issue.  The topic, if you haven’t followed the links, is on “Honesty” in what we right.  But this topic can be explored on more than one level: there’s at least two, possibly three, that I can directly touch on in this post.  (I suspect this will be a long one, and so I may have a follow-up tomorrow.)

It’s an old saw that writers – especially Fiction writers – are professional liars.  (I can’t find a good quote on it, but you’ve heard the phrase before, I’m sure.)  It’s an equally old saw that somehow Fiction reveals Truth (that comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

But this raises the question: what is Truth?  What does it mean to be “True” in Fiction, or to be “Honest” as writers, when what we write is fundamentally not true, in the strict, factual sense?  It’s a philosophical question, perhaps, but it’s worth considering.

The first way in which I want to approach the topic is suggested by a Stephen King quote Lua uses in her blog post:

“If you substitute ‘Oh sugar!’ for ‘Oh s***!’ because you’re thinking about the Legion of Decency, you are breaking the unspoken contract that exists between writer and reader- you promise to express the truth of how people act and talk through the medium of a made-up story”

~Stephen King

Obviously, Stephen King knows a thing or two about good writing, and good fiction.  He’s been around the block more than a few times.  He’s sold more books in his lifetime than than there are numbers to count.  (That’s only marginally not true – you can count them, but you need computers to do it.)  So, one discounts King’s opinions on writing at one’s own risk.  And yet, did you notice how I censored him, there?  I’m quoting him, but I’m quoting him on my blog, where there are some words that I won’t print.  Maybe that’s because I’m a member of the “Legion of Decency” – a strawman if ever there was one.  Maybe that’s because I have delicate sensibilities.  Maybe it’s because I’m cultivating a “family friendly” atmosphere on my blog.  Maybe it’s because, in real life, there’s certain language I try not to use, but I don’t always succeed.  Maybe there are words I  use when I get angry and become unreasonably emotional (hopefully a rare occurrence), and then, suddenly, when the words have spewed out of my mouth, I’m shocked out of my stupor of wrath and instantly regret the foul language I have uttered. 

Let’s say, just for argument’s sake, that the latter example is true of me.  That this is who I am.  Now, what is truth, in this context: for me to pen the words that I try not to speak aloud because my “characters” – imaginary constructs of my own mind – would have no qualms about uttering such language, or for me to forbear, and find a way to write around it?  If I pretend it’s okay to write the words, though I won’t (or try not to) say them out loud, I’m being dishonest with myself.  I’ve rationalized engaging in behavior I don’t condone because I think it’s “truer” to the story or to the characters of the story.  But the “story” and the “characters” therein are fictional constructs – they are figments of my imagination, shards of my being, pieces of myself.  I make them what they are.  If my characters have said it, I have said it.

But, the fact is, not all people in this life are bound by the moral struggles I face.  There are coarse people.  There are mean people.  And a good story – it needs villains, after all.  So there will be people in the story who do not think and feel and believe in what I think and feel and believe.  If I don’t have such characters who challenge and oppose my worldview, my sense of what’s good or right, then, again, I have lied to myself – I’ve lied because I’ve created a world out of my own mind in which there are no challenges and no dilemmas and no moral quandaries, when I know that the world inside my mind is rife with challenge and moral quandary.

Frankly, that’s a conundrum.  And if I just ignore the conundrum – either by going hog-wild with foul language, in this example, or by clamping down a cold and merciless censor – I’ve missed something vital.  I can’t really go one way, and I can’t really go the other.  Is there a middle road?  How do I stay true to myself – which is the only kind of truth I can really write about, the only honesty I can have – if both roads fail to acknowledge the simple fact that I am a complicated and conflicted man?

For me, there are two possible approaches: first, I do absolutely censor the full use of certain words.  There’s no way to justify their use in my writing.  And that means that I can’t just write “‘Oh S***’, he said” as a line of dialog, because “S***”, spelled with stars, is not a word, and will instantly jar the reader out of the story¹.  What do I do instead?  One possibility is to substitute in words from the Lesser Pantheon of Profanity – in this case, “Crap”, which is not on my absolute no-no list.  (That said, I like to limit its use, as well as the use of other members of the Lesser Pantheon of Profanity, so do not take this as a license to ignore the rule, as detailed on the Comment Policy page, that forbids profanity in the comments.  As Lord and Master here, I have the power, and have used it, to alter your words to suit my whims, so do not try the patience of the Great And Mighty Oz.)  Another is simply to write around the profanity: “He was furious. And his fury knew only one language.  A legion of four-letter-words marched from his mouth in a vile homily that made the flowers in the vase on the mantel wilt.”

Now, I’ve gone on at length about the use of foul language in writing².  And yet, quite frankly, I’ve only scratched the surface of the issues that could be raised on the subject of being “honest” in fiction.  There’s the larger issue of what “Truth” and “Honesty” even are in the context of the written words of professional liars.  Tomorrow, I’ll address the topic again with a broader view and a wide-angle lense to explore the further essence and the dark matter of truth and  honesty in fiction.  Until then, please give me your comments and thoughts. 



¹For the record, I also find the actual use of more extreme foul language jarring, as a reader.  If I see an S-bomb or an F-bomb, as they are often colloquially known, dropped in what I’m reading, it pulls me out of the story.  To me, it says “See, look at me!  I’m a writer and I’m not afraid to use profanity or offend your sensibilities!  Nyah nyah nyah!”  Often, I’m sure that’s not the writer’s intention.  But, sometimes, it is.  And there’s no point to that.  It’s juvenile.

²Full disclosure: I once left a comment on Mr. Cabit’s blog that consisted solely of the acronym “WTF?”  He altered it to a lesser-known acronym “WITW?”  This isn’t to call him out on the issue – I reserve the same right to alter comments on my own blog, so I see no difficulty in Cabit doing the same.  I just thought it was a humorous example of the question of censoring profanity, since I hadn’t actually used a profane word in my comment – except that everyone knows that the “F” in the acronym stands for one of the highest lords of the Greater Pantheon of Profanity.  And yet, though it is a word that I will not utter, I somehow found it okay to use an acronym that refers to the word.  In part, that may be because I find that I can mentally neutralize the acronym by replacing the “F-word” with the relatively innocuous “Freak” – a word which I use on a regular basis as a fairly mild pejorative, such that in regular parlance I will actually use the phrase “What the freak?” to express shock or confusion.

11 thoughts on “Truth & Honesty in Fiction

  1. I enjoyed your discussion on truth in fiction, namely whether or not an author should speak as himself/herself or if they should wear the skin of the character and let them speak. I agree with both you and Mr. King. I try not to use profanity, though I am not always successful. I do not, however, mind reading it in a novel, if used to define a character or further the story. I do not enjoy reading novels with gratuitous use of foul language, either.
    I think that an author can write things that may be at odds with how they live, without sacrificing moral ground. For example, each novel has an antagonist. I am sure that most writers will agree that there are many things that their antagonists do that they themselves would never contemplate doing. The same with dialog.
    I recently read a novel in which the main antagonist was an outwardly devout Christian who would never utter a word of profanity. On the other hand, he was a very vile creature on the inside. I am sure that the author of that work uses profanity. I do not know his religious views, but they are probably not too conservative, with respect to some of this other works.
    Well, I know that I am long winded and this is quite the comment, but you really got me thinking. In short I agree with both sides of the argument. If an author chooses not to cross certain boundries, so be it. I will enjoy their fiction, nonetheless. The same for the other side. Thanks for the stimulating post.

    • First of all, thanks for the thoughtful comment! That’s the kind of discussion I was aiming for, here.

      Secondly, you’ve touched a little on the issue that I’m going to explore in more depth next time, what I call the “dark matter”, which is the question of how we portray antagonists (especially villains, which are an especially extreme subset of antagonists). I wonder if sometimes writers don’t put much thought into how they approach this portrayal – not just on the level of “yeah, he does bad stuff because he’s a bad guy“, but also on the level of defining just what constitutes “being a bad guy” or “doing bad stuff”. So, tomorrow I reason through that process for myself. It’s a bit of an uncomfortable discussion for me, but I think that’s as it should be – if getting into the head of a bad guy ever stops being uncomfortable for me, I’m in trouble!

      As to this narrower issue of language and profanity, of course, I realize that people’s tastes, preferences, and sensibilities will run the gamut. I have the lines that I’ve drawn for me, personally. And the main thing I’m advocating here is for writers to put some thought into their approach, and setting their boundaries. And, of course, suggesting that King’s argument that we need to “honest” with our readers is an admonition that should cut both ways – we writers also need to be honest with ourselves… and that includes thinking deeply about how we feel on these topics. Thanks again for the comment!

      • Again, your comment has gotten me thinking….this time about what makes the antagonist of my novel tick. Why is he evil or bad? I actually only have a brief outline of the novel and am currently working on the opening scene. But, I do have a couple of antagonist in mind. One is a broad antagonist, one pushes the story along, and one is truly sinister. It is fantasy, so it is hero vs cult, hero vs minor ‘villain’, hero vs major ‘villain’, and hero vs himself. Thanks again for the insight. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s post.

      • I’m glad I’m provoking some thought!

        Yes, I think that’s a pretty important question to consider. What makes your antagonist tick? I once wrote a 20k word “prologue/short-story/I-didn’t-know-you-called-something-that-long-a-novella” that was all about the origin of the primary villain of my ever-in-the-works fantasy novel. 20 thousand words, as it turns out, is probably too long to be a prologue, but it gave me a lot of insight into the nature of the villain. Howbeit, whenever I return to this project, I’ll have to re-examine those roots and probe further, but it was a great experience.

  2. It’s easy to find truth in fiction in a figurative sense.
    That’s what the old fable’s are all about i suppose.
    I’d think it would depend on how the reader takes it

    • Reader perception is the standard way of looking at something like this. I’m thinking of it a different way: internal self-consistency for the author. If an author has principles, how does that reflect in the author’s work?

  3. There are many levels of truth. What’s true for the characters personalities, what’s true for the author, what’s true in the context of the story. It’s complicated. I think in the end what it comes down to is a balance between not trying to jar the reader, and keeping the story believable.

    Also when it comes to fantasy fiction, some people think that using contemporary swear words are entirely out of place, and that expletives should be archaic or ‘made up’. Other people will argue from the other point of view. I’ve seen both done well.

    • I’m often in the former camp, except for a few special cases. Although… I write with contemporary English, not archaic English, so I don’t want archaic curses, either. But contemporary curses just through me right out. I think you’re right that there are a number of layers to this question. I’m trying to elucidate another, very important layer, because it’s the layer where all of this begins.

  4. Pingback: More Truth & Honesty in Fiction: The Dark Matter « The Undiscovered Author

  5. First, I don’t mind you “Calling me out on the issue,” because I’m not ashamed of what I did. 🙂 And you didn’t have a problem with me censoring you, so we’re all clear there. Censorship approved—Issue solved. 🙂

    Whether or not it’s O.K. to write profanity in stories is debatable. Because even for fiction writers, the world must retain verisimilitude. Why include a dirty villain in your story, but not a swear word? Hmm…I will have to think more about it to form a more solid opinion. But for me personally, I stay away from profanity in my writing.

    Here’s my opinion about your last footnote. I say “Oh for Pete’s sake,” all the time. But for me, it’s not a substitute for anything. It’s just an exclamation of frustration. However, I would have a problem with saying something like, “Sugar,” because I know it’s a substitute, and in the sense of sincerity, it’s kind of like the same thing. What do you think?

    • Yeah, I respect what you did. That, and I’m no pot to call a kettle black. 😉 I just thought it was a humorous example of the topic of the post. As for the issue of straight substitution – mostly I don’t have a problem with it personally. That’s because most of the words in the Greater Pantheon of Profanity aren’t really obscene in the way they’re defined. What I mean is, there are numerous other words in the English language that have the exact same definition (if not the same conotation) as these words that we consider obscene, and yet those synonyms aren’t considered obscene. Further, the way the words are used in context they generally lack definition at all – or rather, if we took the use of those words at face value, the phrases in which they are employed would be nonsense phrases. So, replacing what is essentially a nonsense, but characteristically obscene word with an equally nonsense but non-obscene word strikes me as perfectly acceptable. That’s, of course, in my personal opinion.

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