“True Fiction,” is more than just a fun oxymoron. While it is completely made up from the imagination, thereby “fiction,” it tells the truth about life in a way that makes it believable. Call it what you want: realistic fiction, true-life fiction, literary fiction, or serious fiction, it has to be true enough that a reader can personally relate to it, be able to say, “I know how that feels, or what that looks like. I’ve been there.” It is character driven rather than plot oriented and written with a passionate commitment to a moral purpose. As Barbara Kinsolver said, "A novel can educate…, but first, a novel has to entertain.” If it doesn’t engage the reader, it fails.
“It is fiction as truth that I am concerned with here, fiction that reflects
experience rather than escaping it; stimulates rather than deadens.”
—Wallace Stegner, On Teaching and Writing Fiction
“True art seeks to improve life, rather than debase it.”
— John Gardner, On Moral Fiction
“Pursuit of the truth, not facts, is the business of fiction.” — Oakley Hall
Guidelines for “True Fiction” as taught in my workshop are:
1) It is a lens on life. “If it deals in make-believe—as it must—it creates a make-believe world in order to comment on the real one.” — Stegner
2) It is author-centered. “You need to put yourself at the center; you and what you believe to be true and right.” — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
3) It is moral as John Gardner defines moral fiction: “a force bringing people together, breaking down barriers of prejudice and ignorance, and holding up ideals worth pursuing.” Truth in fiction includes trustworthiness—a responsibility to be true to both the reader and yourself as an author.
4) It is consistent.
* It must stay true to the characters it creates. Readers feel betrayed when a character they have grown to understand and care about says or does something uncharacteristic without any explanation for the reversal.
* It must stay true to the premises it sets up. Even if you are writing science fiction or fantasy, you must stay within the laws of physics or nature that govern the venue or character you create.
* It must be technically accurate. Know the area and customs of the land and the people you are writing about. If a certain kind of machine or rigging enters your story, be sure you know exactly how it’s made and what it does. Readers are quick to catch a technical mistake.