Truth and beauty

Life in novels isn’t like it is in the real world. No matter how closely you follow a character – even if you occupy her head – she’ll not tell you everything. You don’t hear when she’s hungry or if she needs the toilet – not unless it’s important to the plot or the character. You’re not aware of every emotion, every thought. Similarly, writers don’t tell you of every movement a character makes, even if you’re watching them closely. You assume their chest is rising and falling as they breathe. You don’t need to be told unless there’s something significant therein.

Readers know this. It’s an unwritten, undiscussed contract. Writers don’t give you a full story, only the edited highlights. We – writers and readers both – choose beauty over truth.

A few years ago I heard tell of a writer of graphic novels. Highly thought of at the time (I forget his name and what he was working on, but it’s not important), it was the way he handled dialogue that caught the attention. He’d get a cast, sit them round and made them read their lines. Sometimes they’d improvise them. The point is that the writer replicated these lines as they were delivered. Every hesitation, cough, stumble, was recreated on the page.

Dialogue is the most obvious area where we look for beauty over truth. Think about it. When we’re talking we omit words all the time, or repeat pointless information adding nothing. We don’t punctuate, just ramble on with infinite sub-clauses. To follow something like that on the page would be almost impossible. We’d lose interest, become frustrated – reading should be a pleasure not a chore. So writers edit it down for us. Leave us with just a little taste so we can add the detail, subconsciously, in our minds.

People in books also use real names more than they do down the pub. When writing it’s really handy to let the audience know who’s being talked to/is talking without labouring the point. Hence… “What do you think, Jessica? Will it work?” That immediately tells is a) someone is talking to Jessica, and b) it’s not Jessica talking. Do we do this in real life? Nah. Not often. In large groups, maybe, but most of the time it’s obvious who we’re talking to from the way we’re facing or the tone of voice and volume we’re using.

Names are another area of lieage. We all know more than one person with the same name, right? I know several Sally’s and a few Dave’s. Not allowed in fiction, not unless that’s the point of the novel. Everyone must have their own unique moniker. More than that, we can’t have even similar names: Jessica and Jennifer, for example, would be right out. We’ve also got to be careful of names that suggest ethnicity or class. In the real world we might actually know an heiress called Tracy or a Turk called Terry but it strikes the reader as so strange that they expect it to be explained. You don’t want to read (or write) an irrelevant back-story.

So there you go. Writers lie. They lie to us all the time. Because beauty, in this context, is a hell of a lot more important than truth. We don’t care how many times our protagonist goes to the toilet. Our antagonist is rarely bothered by the financial consequences of buying a deserted volcano and housing his support staff. Books lie. And they’re all the better for it.

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