There ain’t no such thing as fiction

Photo mosaic

Fact fragments or fiction?


So here I am, curled up and writing a novel, which by definition is officially fiction as the word ‘novel’ means new and unique. I’m creating characters, places and a whole host of arcs and elements that come together in what I hope will be a darn good read. It is certainly being a darn good write – I’m enjoying every minute. But pure fiction? I dare to claim there ain’t no such thing.


Not if we are to accept the Merriam-Webster definition that fiction is written stories about people and events that are not real.

Now let me be clear here: I mentally brainstorm and think ‘novel’ for most of my waking hours. Coin plausible scenarios, angles and solutions to dilemmas. Reject and rethink. Draw and redraw settings in my head and on paper. Trawl the net and museums for photos I need for accuracy or hop into the car to take them myself. Make copious notes and rope in trusty test readers for honest feedback. My book is entirely mine.

And yet.

Surely every basic thought and idea has been triggered by fragments of someone or somewhere or something? I’m simply adapting, modifying and moulding impressions and memories into the shapes and forms I want them to have in my story.

Like this: suppose I want to tailor a brand new table. I could remove one leg from four different tables and the table top from a fifth. Once assembled to form my table, I shorten the legs then sand and mould the wood into the shape I want it to be. Round the corners or carve patterns into the wood. Finally, I stain my table in an entirely different colour. Voilà. Everyone would agree that this is a table. Albeit like nothing they have ever seen before. I could take a snapshot. And repeat the process to create the next item I need.

I believe writing works the same way. If dialogue is to be credible, for example, it must ring sufficiently true in relation to the numerous variations on word usage, tones and expressions that readers have encountered in their real lives. Or at least close enough. So we take a handful of reality fragments and further develop them into a conversation, say, between hobbits. A dialogue plausible enough not to cross the undefined thin line between realistic and ridiculous. Even for hobbits. And what are hobbits if not adaptations of humans? Harry Potter is just a boy with a talent for wizardry and chatting to snakes. And there would be no hitchhikers in the galaxy if the galaxy had not already existed.

Imagination stems from reality or the established.

And this, in my humble opinion, is where the art of writing lies.

Fiction is the written form of those clever photo mosaics that are made up of teeny tiny images of other things we know. Each nano pixel cluster is a true picture in itself, perhaps even individually photoshopped to fit more perfectly into the big picture, but cleverly placed in a particular order to create new art. Truly gifted writers do exactly the same thing. Subconsciously for the most part. They carefully craft each pixel, fragment and image in such a way that we become caught up in their stories and beg for more. We fall in love with characters such as Austen’s Mr Darcy and wonder whether he was based on one special or several men. We marvel at Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and shiver at its plausibility. Even the film, Independence Day, is fundamentally the story of another form of war. And we call all these fiction.

No, I agree, hobbits are not real. Hogwarts does not exist. And neither, unfortunately, does Mr Darcy – although some men come pretty dang close. But they all originate from inspired twists and takes on reality.

So, what would we call fiction if not fiction? Well, we would simply continue to call it fiction because stories are just that – stories. With a value in themselves. But I would redefine the term ‘fiction’ to mean ‘story’ and leave it at that. Because who knows where reality stops and imagination starts in a good yarn. Maybe JK Rowling has heard of a little boy who can communicate with snakes.

And as Mark Twain said:

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.

I rest our case.

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