Telling the Truth in Fiction

by Steven James

October 2013

A few years ago when my daughter was in sixth grade, she was studying for a spelling bee and one of the advanced words was agathokakological. It took us a while to track down the definition: "consisting of both good and evil." What a fabulous word: agathokakological. We humans have agathokakological hearts, motives, dreams, passions. The next day I told my youngest daughter to inform her first grade teacher that we are an agathokakological breed. I wish I could have seen her teacher's expression when she did.

Chesterton called us "broken gods." Pascal called us "fallen princes." Philosophers have long wondered how we fit into this world, somewhere between the apes and the angels. To make us into one or the other is to deny the full reality of who we are because we have both animal instincts and divine desires. Pascal (a philosopher) wrote, "Man must not think that he is on a level either with the brutes or with the angels, nor must he be ignorant of both sides of his nature; but he must know both."[1] Rumi (a mystic poet) wrote, "Half of him is angelic and half animal . . . The angel is free because of his knowledge, the beast because of his ignorance. Between the two remains the son of man to struggle."[2] A friend of mine told me that we are each Cinderella in the moment of transformation-half dressed in ashes and rags, half clothed in a royal gown ready to meet the prince.


We can tell we're from here but don't belong here. We're meant for more than this. We are an odd race capable of both martyrdom and murder, poetry and rape, worship and genocide.

We are dust and bones and blood and dreams, skin-covered spirits with hungry souls. Search the ragged terrain of our hearts and you'll find that we are both nurses and terrorists, lovers and liars, suicide bombers and little grinning children with milk mustaches.

So what does all of this mean for us as writers?

Well, I believe that when it comes to fiction, we should tell stories that express the full measure of humanity-stories that reveal both the glory and grandeur of life, while also honestly acknowledging the darkness and deviance that is there as well.

How to do this? Here are three specific ways.

#1 - Avoid Worn-Out Clichés

In your fiction, stay clear of simplistic and trite themes such as "Follow your heart," "Pursue your dreams," or "Be true to yourself." After all, serial killers follow their hearts. Rapists pursue their dreams. Pedophiles are true to themselves.

We need to follow something greater than our hearts, choose very carefully which dreams to pursue, and be true to something more trustworthy than ourselves.

Pursue virtues which are universal, not "values" which are subjective and personal. Why? Because what if someone values cowardice? Or greed? Or killing endangered species? Stick with exploring virtues.

#2 - Be Honest About Evil

In our culture, evil is most often muted or glamorized.

Some books and television shows do so by diminishing the value of human life. A person is killed and no one grieves; a cop just mutters a wisecrack about the body, then we cut to a commercial or a chapter break before diving into solving the crime. This isn't honest.

Death matters because life matters.

We measure the worth of something by how much pain it causes when it's lost, so if people are slaughtered or indiscriminately killed in our fiction and no one grieves, we end up devaluing the worth of human life. The more pain someone's death causes, the more value their life had and, by inference, the more value our lives have.

On the other hand, some fiction makes violence seem glamorous and intriguing. The most interesting person is the serial killer or axe-wielding slasher. Readers almost begin to identify with the justification of evil. This desensitizes people to it. And since we tend to emulate those we admire, I believe movies or books that celebrate violence draw people toward it.

I believe that instead of muting or glamorizing evil, our books should lead people to look honestly at what our world is like. Violence shouldn't be senseless; people's lives need to be treated as precious. Portray evil as disturbing, rather than alluring.

#3 - Tell the Truth About the World

Rather than opening both eyes to see the wonder and horror of our world, most of us see things either through the lens of wishful thinking or the lens of nihilism. Those who don't weep have closed one eye to the world. Those who never laugh have done the same.

It just doesn't make sense that life could be both this magnificent and this terrible, but yet it is. People really do live in palaces. People really do live in garbage dumps. Those of us who live in middle-class America tend to believe the illusion that this is a middle-class world, but it is not. It is a world of great poverty and great wealth, great pain and great peace. Ecstasy and oblivion.

The only option left is to accept the paradox that our planet is somehow full of both tear stains and giggles, both delight and despair. It's an all-of-the-above world.

The poet Robert Bly beautifully noted the paradox of this world's sadness and splendor when he wrote of "the puzzled grief we all feel at being appointed to do mysterious tasks here, on this planet, among mountain meadows and falling stars."

In the end, the glass isn't half empty or half full. It's not half anything. Life is both more full than you'd ever expect and more empty than you can imagine. Lift the strange cup of reality to your lips, look closely at the world for yourself, and you'll see what I mean.

Let your stories explore that and they'll begin to make a real difference in people's lives.

Steven James is the critically acclaimed, award-winning author of ten novels. He has a Master’s Degree in Storytelling, has taught writing and creative storytelling on three continents and is a contributing editor to Writer’s Digest.

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