Putting Reality into Fiction – How Close Can You Get?

By: Ebonye Gussine Wilkins

Putting reality into fiction requires walking a very fine line. When I started writing Somewhat Close To Normal, it was two years after the September 11th attacks occurred. It took ten years before it finally made it to print. Even now, people are debating on whether fiction on 9/11 or any (national) tragedy should be written at all. That theme was examined in this New York Times post on July 22nd. Most of the fiction for 9/11 has been oblique at best; the rest of the writings are mostly written by people who experienced the loss of loved ones. There is no agreement on when and how tragedy should be written about. If you are “too far” from the event, how can you write about it accurately? If you are “too close” to an event, how can you be objective?

I have a couple of questions about this: what does “too far” or “too close” mean when writing about tragedy, (in fiction or reality)? It it really something that requires objectivity?

There is an old cliche that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense, but reality doesn’t. I don’t like this idea at all. There are many ways to express your thoughts and heal in the face of tragic events. Writing is one of these ways. Yet, readers and critics often take ownership of the writer’s thoughts by judging a piece of writing that stems from the raw emotions taken from tragic real-life events. Readers and critics are quick to say what is appropriate, what is not appropriate, what is biased, and what is subjective. The truth is, you can have fiction that stems from reality, and sometimes that is the appropriate distance from an event. Writing can be informative and objective, but it doesn’t always have to be. Reality does not exist devoid of emotion.

I’ve noticed that many people have taken to write about their feelings with the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO. Some of these people are writers, and others are illustrators, YouTube celebrities, scientists, lawyers, fashion gurus, and many others. Even though writing may not be their medium of choice, it seems like one of the better ways to express fear, rage, and share personal experiences. If you feel these things, aren’t you the best person to write about it? It doesn’t have to be perfect prose; the poetry doesn’t have to rhyme; the facts don’t have to be all in and lined up in a neat little row. At it’s best, fiction is a reflection of reality. Writing is a reflection of the mind and soul of the writer. People who are grieving a tragic event have every right to express themselves with their writing, whether it is fiction or not.

But of course, when someone expresses their discontent with the details surrounding a tragic event, there are always trolls (Internet or otherwise) who will come along and start arguments for the sake of starting an argument. This doesn’t help anyone, it just continues to fuel resentment. It implies that the writer’s feelings, thoughts and opinions aren’t valid.

When you write your next work of fiction that relates to tragedy, allow your characters to feel what is natural. Remember that your characters (like real-life people) have valid feelings and they should be allowed to express them freely. It doesn’t mean that dissent or opposing opinions shouldn’t be discussed to a point. Those feelings are an extension of your character, and need to be expressed. If you don’t allow your fictional characters to benefit from the complexities of reality, then you aren’t doing justice to your characters or to yourself as a writer.

How do you deal with reality in your fiction?

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