Fiction is a strange beast. Fiction writers make up new worlds (see science fiction and fantasy) or write alternative histories to those produced by our own. (Many a thriller, including Robert Harris’s Fatherland is based on the “what if we’d lost WW2?” theme).
We make up characters and those of us who write fantasy, as I do, bring in magical elements but what do all of these things have in common? There is at least a grain of truth behind each and every one of them. Readers pick up on that.
Writers base characters on known human behaviour and characteristics. From that principle, you can write about any time, any city, any world etc and a reader will be able to identify with at least some of what you have come up with. So truth then is vital if you are going to come up with fictional lies (or at least those that have some chance of being believed)!
When creating alternative worlds, you need to know a reasonable amount about how this one works to figure out how your version works. Will it be democratic? A dictatorship? What would count as mainstream in your new world? What is their technology like? (Terry Pratchett with his Discworld series brought in the invention of the stamp and the locomotive, to name just two things, to bring his Ankh-Morpork into what would be its modern era).
It is a given that the hero has to be flawed (nobody’s perfect after all so they shouldn’t be in fiction either). Likewise, the villain has to have understandable motives. One of the great villainous performances came from Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Nobody liked what the Sheriff did (okay, the Sheriff did!) but the character was witty, was no cardboard cut-out and people got behind that.
Crime fiction in many ways is even weirder. You’d think there was enough crime going on for real in the world without wanting to read made up versions of it but the truth is, possibly bar horror, it is the most popular genre in fiction. I’ll be interviewing a crime writer soon (and another one hopefully later this year) and one of the questions I do ask is why they think crime fiction is so popular and what readers get from it.
The advantages of series fiction, regardless of genre, is you get to develop the characters. Vimes in the Discworld novels is a brilliant example of this. From a drunk in Guards! Guards! to a fully fledged commander, with a wife and son, who has come such a long way physically and metaphorically. Yet throughout he still burns with the wish that villains get their comeuppance (and he ensures that when they cross his watch, that’s precisely what they get).
The advantages of single fiction, whether it is a short story or a stand alone novel or, of course, a piece of flash fiction, is you can start afresh with new characters each time. They are a blank sheet for you to fill in the details on – and that’s where the fun is!
There’s nothing to stop you using historical fact to base a story one either. After all it is what Josephine Tey did with The Daughter of Time, which uses the fictional character of a temporarily bed bound Inspector Alan Grant to re-examine the evidence against Richard III regarding the murder of the Princes in the Tower. Colin Dexter uses the same technique when Inspector Morse is in hospital and, from his bed, opens up a historical case in The Wench is Dead.
Fiction can bring out truths “straight material” can’t. I’m re-reading The Maligned King by Annette Carson and she debunks the notion of the Princes in the Tower being buried to a depth of 10’ under a staircase (which is the traditional story for what happened to the unfortunate lads).
She rightly shows up what nonsense this idea is given the Princes were supposed to be disposed of “quietly” and there is no way of digging to a depth of 10’, especially in a public place like the Tower of London, without someone noticing! Does this count as evidence in favour of Richard III?
I think so but am aware that many would say a logical deduction still would not clear (or convict) someone. (Also there is the valid point for Richard III to have any benefit from the death of the Princes it would have to be clear to the public the boys had gone. No uprisings in their name and so on. The boys disappearing does not help Richard III in any way.).
A fiction writer has to be true to their characters then, otherwise their portrayal will simply not ring true. Once belief in the character has been lost, the story is over with as far as the reader is concerned. So every character and every story has to have solid foundations even if you literally set your tale in some fairytale world lightyears beyond anything man is ever likely to reach with space exploration.
The point of fiction, I think, is firstly to entertain (and in so doing encourage a great love of reading for its own sake). But there is a secondary “mission” which is to show your reader if this created world were to exist, it could be run like this and the characters would behave like this – and this will inevitably be either a mirror of what we know on Earth or what we would like to happen on Earth.
Occasionally it can be what we dread happening on Earth. I think Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a good example of that with women are used for breeding, have no say in who they breed with etc (and I don’t want to say more than that).
There can be a lot of psychology in story telling (which can reveal quite a bit about the writer too! There’s a lot of poetic justice in my flash fiction… what does that say about me? Generally I like right to prevail over evil and am only too aware this so often doesn’t happen in life! I can ensure it does happen in my fiction! Many would identify with that).
When I read works by other authors, I’m always asking questions, trying to second guess the endings and so on. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes not but the questions I ask as I read are the kind that enable me to see right into the character I’m reading about. I question their motives.
The motives the author comes up with, whether I guess them or not, have to be sufficiently strong enough for me to “buy” it and, for any writer to create something like that, you have to have a good knowledge of human nature. This is where studying history can be invaluable for fiction writers. There is nothing new under the sun but that is something story writers can take advantage of.
Incidentally, historical records can be a great source of information. They can be used for inspiring name creation for characters (at least you would know what names were used for the time period in which you are writing).
Jobs people held can tell you about their status, who they were likely to work for, who they were likely to meet – and then you can ask things like what impact did the Industrial Revolution have on them?
I imagine that practically all of the great inventors have been scoffed at in their time for daring to come up with something different. There are stories to be written there (both factual and fiction based) on how inventors overcame things like that.
If you are creating your own world, what form would that mockery take or are inventors always revered? (I would find that hard to swallow in a story as those who come up with machines etc not seen before would at least be open to having themselves and their work misunderstood and probably misused – again there are stories to be had there!).
So brush up on your history, your knowledge of how machines work etc and then let your fictional imagination run riot with the facts. It is also amazing how often things that are just fictional can become fact later on.
One of Spike Milligan’s Goon Show scripts refers to a “breast pocket telephone” decades before the invention of the mobile phone! People do look seriously in the possibilities of time travel thanks to enjoying Doctor Who.
And how many strange worlds have been created in fiction based on the odd worlds within our own? There is so much in the oceans that is still unknown. A science fiction writer could fun with that and with what is known to create their own world here. So happy reading and writing then!
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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