Truth in fiction?

One of the things we readers regularly talk about is the notion of the truths we find in fiction. I like to collect what authors have to say about this, particularly in their own fiction, and so thought I’d share a few with you.

But first I’ll start with one from Richard Flanagan that doesn’t mention the word “truth”, just to get our juices going:

Books were solid, yet time was molten. Books were consistent, yet people were not. Books dealt in cause & effect, yet life was inexplicable disorder. Nothing was as it was in a book…’ (Flanagan, Gould’s book of fish)

This comes from a character who is clearly frustrated with life – and who doesn’t seem to be learning the right lessons from his reading! More to my point, from another Aussie writer, Rodney Hall, is this:

Fiction…is not so much a licence to make things up as…a licence to tell the truth.’ (Hall, The day we had Hitler home)

I love this – this recognition that fiction is, really, about truth. We readers know it – but there are many others who don’t. Flanagan says something similar in Wanting:

…though the story is a fancy, it is a fancy drawn from the deepest truth. (Richard Flanagan, Wanting)

And yet, this issue of truth in fiction can be looked at from a slightly different perspective. Marion Halligan, in her novel The fog garden in which she explores grief after the death of her husband, has a few things to say on the matter:

She isn’t me. She’s a character in fiction. And like all such characters she makes her way through the real world which her author invents for her. She tells the truth as she sees it, but may not always be right. (Halligan, The fog garden)


A reader could think that, since Clare is my character, I can make all sorts of things happen to her that I can’t make happen to myself. This is slightly true, but not entirely … only if it is not betraying the truths of her life and character as I have imagined them. (Halligan, The fog garden)

Here Halligan tackles head on that problem that so many readers have, particularly in autobiographical/semi-autobiographical novels, of distinguishing “fact” from “truth”; she also explores the wider issue of authorial manipulation of characters. There is more that I could quote but that would get boring, and so I’ll give the last word on the matter to Elizabeth Bowen who, as AS Byatt quotes in her introduction to Bowen’s A house in Paris, is clear about truth and fiction:

The novel lies, in saying something happened, that did not. It must therefore contain uncontradictable truth to warrant the original lie.

And that, as they say is that. Anyone want to disagree?

8 thoughts on “Truth in fiction?

  1. An interesting post. I’m not sure that “truth” can be reached by any human means anyway – you’ll have heard ot studies that get several people watching a video of a traffic accident and then interviews them afterwards, only to find that they all have divergent descriptions of what happened. Fiction I think works on the level of myth and story – often saying more about the human condition than a simple recounting of “facts” can achieve. I studied this in a theology course some years ago. The story is often more important than the actuality!

    • Oh, thanks Tom for engaging. I like your notion of “myth and story” that expresses “the human condition”. We use the word “truth” very loosely don’t we, when in fact we mean a lot of different things by it ranging from wanting “the facts” (such as what happened in a traffic accident) through some sort of notion of relative truths (how one behaves or what one knows in relation to ones circumstances – such as my truth is that families are generally loving and supportive but that may not be so for others) to some sort of infallible understanding/description of “the human condition” (that philosophers have grappled with). I think the authors above are ranging across some of these ideas about truth. Does any of this make sense? Does this fit in with your concept of story – or, I guess, with the role of story in our lives?

  2. I think it’s why story matters in our lives. What I witness with delight in my classes – even with very little children – is their discovery that the same story has different truths for different people. They have all heard the same story but interpret it differently…it’s part of learning to discover that the world is wider than we first believe. Those of us who read fiction never lose this sense of discovery about the human condition.

    • Ah, Lisa…that’s so true. Thanks. Reminds me of seeing those examples where kids are asked what a story is about and they come up with such different things. (I’m always intrigued too, by those who recount the plot, and those who try to encapsulate the theme/truth/message. It must be such fun sharing reading with so many kids! And you are right about we readers never losing the sense of discovery.

  3. This reminds me of an anecdote I once read in a theological book discussing biblical truths. It was either an Australian Aboriginal or a Native American elder who, when teaching his tribal legends, prefaced his stories with something like the following: I don’t know if this is what happened but it is true.

  4. Have you read Inga Clendinnen’s Quarterly Essay on the topic? It’s called The History Question, and she has a go at, amongst others, Kate Grenville, for use of history in literature. It’s actually a very interesting essay. Check it out if you get time.

    Also interesting is an essay called “Mythologies”, by Anne Curthoys, who looks at questions of Australian identity in historical fiction. Her focus is more on Aboriginal/white relations, but also provides an interesting look at this issue.

  5. Oh Matt, thanks for reminding me. I have read Inga Clendinnen’s Quarterly essay. I like Clendinnen a lot but I didn’t agree completely with her re this issue. I think poor old Kate made some claims, off the top of her head I feel, that got some historians’ hackles up. I do feel that while Clendinnen argues well it is a bit of a case of “methinks she protesteth too much”. What did you think? I haven’t read the Ann Curthoys though – will check that out.

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