Why true life stories often don't make good fiction (aagh!) by Ali Bacon

The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing (with chapters by lots of well-known writers) has been on my shelf for a while. I’ve taken it down from time to time and consulted odd sections but never read it from cover to cover. Well you wouldn’t would you? But when I was looking for another topic, a chapter caught my eye that I hadn’t noticed before. ‘Why true-life stories often don’t make good fiction,’ by Alyce Miller

Aagh! If I had seen this before I might not have spent several years of my life attempting something that’s if not impossible certainly very difficult, viz. a fictional version of a life-story that for some reason reached out and spoke to me several years ago and is still (just) a work in progress

Alyce Miller suggests that the writer who 'finds' a powerful or moving real life story is often too close to it to do it justice. Because he/she already has emotional investment in it, she fails to create this for the reader.  Restricting the plot to ‘the way it happened’ (because it’s true!)) rather than exploring alternatives is another problem and the fact that writing becomes constrained if what’s going to happen is already mapped out. Fiction, she reminds us, should be an act of discovery for the writer as well as for the reader.

My experience of historical fiction is that the problems are similar and in some cases harder to overcome. Of course there are hundreds of great books that centre on real people and events (last year i loved Robert Harris' An Officer and a Spy and Naomi Woods' Mrs Hemingway ), but I have come across quite a few that really don’t work, not for me anyway. Tracy Chevalier for instance used to be one of my favourite historical novelists. I devoured Girl with a Pearl Earring, Falling Angels and The Lady and The Unicorn

But what happened in Burning Bright, her novel about William Blake? Most people, including me, came away disappointed.  Remarkable Creatures had a better reception but to me there was still something missing. I never felt I was as close to the characters as I should have been. I can't remember now what the problem seemed to be, but in my own work I've encountered a certain reluctance to delve into the imagined consciousness of someone who is a real life hero as well as the character in my book. Or maybe it’s just that thing about the author being too close to the characters to actually convey them in writing. The other problem I think, particularly if there are primary sources available, is that it can be hard for an author who has done mountains of research to write something that conflicts with the ‘known facts’.  I didn’t read much of David Lodge’s A Man of Parts about HG Wells (biography buffs loved it) but the level of detail stopped me from being in  the ‘dream of fiction.’

Going back to my own project,  I can see my first draft had all of the problems listed in the Handbook with a few more besides. Character development was definitely ‘restricted’ (non-existent?) and I recall some plot possibilities being rejected because they were at odds with ‘the facts’. So was it all a terrible mistake? Well, I haven’t given up – yet - but I know have to see my ‘found story’ as an inspiration rather than a constraint. The story I set out to tell does not need ‘re-engineering’ as I said on Jane Davis’ blog recently, so much as re-imagining. So far I haven’t ditched the characters, but their story is starting in a different place and I feel it may not end up where I expect. Not the same book written differently, but actually a different book, a new voyage of discovery. 

As for Alyce Miller, I suspect even if I had read her warnings I still would have had a bash at this story. Some things you have to learn for yourself!  


Lee said…
Alyce Miller doesn't know what she's talking about. Writers can do just about anything -- if (and it's a very big if) they're good enough.
Susan Price said…
Makes sense to me, Ali. This is exactly why, when I wrote a book partly based on the historical Border reivers, the Armstrongs, I deliberately stepped to one side and renamed them 'the Sterkarms' - precisely so I wouldn't be constrained by 'the truth.'
Lee said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said…
The matter of historical accuracy is being discussed quite a lot at the moment with regard to fiction, fictionalised memoirs, etc., and there are no easy answers. Personally, even when I read historical accounts, I tend to regard them as tentative narratives - and heavily weighted by one's cultural framework - but perhaps I'm rather too sceptical.

Bill Kirton said…
I find it's not just that the 'facts' get in the way, Ali, it's the actual people. I've only once tried to base a character on someone I knew quite well, and it just didn't work. My perceptions of and attitude towards the real person prevented the fictional version from developing. Paradoxically, imagined characters can exhibit a greater depth and complexity than real ones.
Chris Longmuir said…
I agree, Bill. One of my friends wanted to be character in one of my Dundee crime Series books and I just couldn't get it to work. The real person kept getting in the way of the fictional person. Likewise, I've tried, but can't write a book using a social worker as the main character, because I was a social worker and I'm too close to it. I find I start writing it in a report style, and that's because we had to write so many reports as part of the job. I can get off with social workers as minor characters, but not main ones. I think it's something to do with being too close to a subject, it gets in the way of the imaginary process.
AliB said…
Thanks for your comments, everyone.'No easy answers' is I think, the order of the day. I have certainly considered renaming my characters as Susan has done, but at the moment I seem to be at least on my way with it again - who knows for how long!
Dennis Hamley said…
This is very interesting, Ali. It is indeed hard to write convincingly about a historical character you've found fascinating and over years of reading and research very familiar with. I'm finding that with Coleridge, my ever-present mental companion. The reason why the first draft of my long labour of love failed was simply because I did far too much dramatising of recorded truth. I think I wanted a great bed of actuality within in which to rest a fictional story. But the way I did it plainly didn't work. The idea of the first effort was to centre it on an incident in STC's life which could have had particular life changing consequences and in another existence probably would have. this was at the centre of version 1 b ut not its significance was obscured by too much dramatised biography. Now I've put it at the very centre and as I write I'm trying to see how, given our understanding of STC, he would have dealt with it. The beauty of this is that it doesn't need to actually alter any real life circumstances, though it might modify his thoughts about them. But I'm still taking the character as I understand him and making his reactions consistent with what we know about him. So I feel I'm still writing about him. Because this COULD have happened and he knows it and half-wanted it to, though he kept it to himself and we only know from his notebooks. 'Thou hast committed fornication, but that was in another country and besides, the wench is dead.' One of those is right, another is possible (even probable) and about the third, history does not relate.
I disagree quite strongly with Alyce here - although I can understand and acknowledge the problem. In the Physic Garden, William, Thomas and Prof Jeffray were all real people as were a few of the minor characters - and Jeffray was very famous in his day. In fact I saw a portrait of the Prof in the Royal College of Surgeons in Glasgow a couple of weeks ago and I must admit, I felt as if he was looking a little askance at me because my (slightly unreliable) narrator does him no favours for much of the book! But although I had a faint pang about the fact that I was writing about real people and inventing so much of their lives, it didn't bother me too much. Maybe, though, it helped that there were big gaps in factual details about them anyway. Now, I'm in the middle of a new novel, about Robert Burns's wife, Jean Armour, but it will definitely be fiction. I knew before I started that I would have to fend off the Burnsians but I've done it in plays about the poet before - and each historian seems to have a different perspective anyway. My main problem so far hasn't had anything to do with tackling real people - it has been far more to do with the dominance of the poet and the way in which Jean has been ignored. The weight of research and perspective is all on Rab's side. I've also written fiction based on my own family history. In all these cases, involving lots of initial research, there came a moment when I had to 'give myself permission to fictionalise'. I can remember the first time I did this, years ago. I had been a victim of the 'but it didn't happen like this' mindset when it suddenly occurred to me that it didn't matter because this was fiction and I must give myself permission to tell the story in whatever way I wanted. I suspect a certain icy unscrupulousness is necessary. Mind you, I do tend to write about fairly remote history, which certainly gives me more leeway. Good luck with the project, Ali!
Lee said…
All of these comments are fascinating, and I'm glad to read how writers more experienced than I handle these issues. It certainly has some bearing on the F/SF I'm wont to write, but I don't know if I'd trust myself to tackle real historical characters, even in alternate history form - if nothing else, I'm lazy about research. (That said, I've just rewritten a short section of my latest novel which is set in pre-1989 Berlin, but I may not actually end up using it, and the characters are entirely non-historical.)
AliB said…
Hello Dennis - didn't realise you had a project similar to mine and have been having the same problems- good to know you are winning the battle. I think I knew all along I would have to let go of the 'real' story which has already been told in various places and make a new one, but being so new to historical fiction I somehow couldn't do it before I had set down the facts that I did know. Catherine - you obviously have the knack, although, as you say, the more remote the history you're dealing with (I'm in 1860) the easier it probably is to just make things up. Looking forward to Jean's story. A.

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