FICTION, no matter how surreal or otherworldly, is a response to reality. An author creates characters based on people he knows or has met or has heard about, and often one character is a combination of several people. The most beguiling step in the creation of a story is the charged moment when the main character becomes clear to the author and the story’s principal themes present themselves. This may sound unlikely to people who haven’t done it and can’t imagine how an author can write a book without first knowing who the characters are and what the story’s about.
Fiction-making — determining the who and the what of a story in progress — is a mysterious business. When the author realizes just who his protagonist is, themes fall into place and composition becomes easier and more focused. In the past, if an author wanted to base a character on, say, a well-known person in the French art world, and if it was a comedy, the painter might be called Chablis and he might have the characteristics of Matisse. That sort of book is often called a roman à clef (story with a key). If the character was based on an identifiable painter, he’d probably be called by the painter’s actual name. In Irving Stone’s Lust for Life, for instance, Van Gogh and Gauguin are called Van Gogh and Gauguin. Anne Girard’s Madame Picasso (unread by me) is another instance of real-name usage. If you start thinking about this the examples come tumbling forth. They’re hardly limited to European painters. In White Hunter, Black Heart, Peter Viertel’s novel of the making of The African Queen, the director John Huston is called John Wilson. Viertel’s assumption was readers would know the movie and probably the director. By slightly altering the name he was signaling that he had also changed events slightly. Another example is Brian Hall’s Fall of Frost, a novel about the great American poet. I’m not qualified to say which of Hall’s many assertions are factual and which are simply speculative, but I feel safe in saying the novel hews closely to the title character’s much documented life.
Does it matter whether an author uses an actual person’s name or a fictional name? I’m going to say it does. There’s a purity to made-up names. They allow the author to veer away from accepted facts. If an actual name is used, an author should feel an obligation to hold the story to known facts that are perhaps shaped by the author’s interpretation. To an earlier generation of novelists, made-up names were a signal to readers that the author was going to invent incidents in order to get at a larger truth about the character in question. That seems right to me though I’m not sure that the distinction carries much weight today.
I offer you a few examples from my own work. In One of Us, a novel I published in the late 1990s which was set mostly in Egypt during the run up to World War II, the central characters were based on actual figures of the time. I invented names for most of them and moved in and out of verifiable facts as my version of the story required. It grew strange when I got to the Egyptian crown prince, who in the course of the book became king. Obviously I was writing about Farouk. It seemed absurd to give a false name to one of the most famous men in the world who took part in well-known historical events. Once I chose to use Farouk’s name I found that the prince’s parents, King Fouad and Queen Nazli, also needed their actual names, as did a few other characters. I felt these were the right choices for the kind of book I was writing.
At present I’m finishing The Minder, a novel set in present-day Hollywood that centers on a very famous young woman who is bipolar and bisexual and always in trouble, banging up expensive cars and doing what used to be called sleeping around. If a reader were to know only those few facts, it wouldn’t be surprising if the name Lindsay Lohan came to mind. There will always be young women like that in Hollywood, but they won’t always be called Lindsay Lohan. I gave her another name just as I invented the plot. I wanted the freedom to make up characters and incidents that were fully fictional. I might have gotten a commercial boost if I had called my character Lindsay Lohan.
Contemporary readers, many brought up on tell-all memoirs, reality shows, and talk shows, now often seem confused about what were once easily discernible borders. More than one reader has asked me about another of my novels, “Is it fictional?”
Fiction-making is so much fun that many non-fiction writers prefer to make up stuff. In just one of many famous examples, some years ago a Washington Post reporter wrote a profile of “Jimmy,” an eight-year old heroin addict, a story so compelling and sensational it won its author a Pulitzer Prize. Well-meaning readers wanted to help the child. Inquiries were made and the whole stunt unraveled. The reporter was finished with journalism and the Pulitzer was returned.
I read the piece when it first appeared and immediately suspected it was made up — piped suspiciously and too perfectly, in the slang of the time. I knew because I had pulled similar stunts. My first book was sold as a collection of profiles of eccentric New Yorkers, con men and women, prostitutes and Broadway wise guys, many of whom might have been cooked up by Damon Runyon on an off day. I gave it an elaborate title: U.S. Grant in the City and other True Stories of Jugglers, Pluggers, Swatters and Whores. The book began life as a single piece, a profile of an overweight press agent called Fat Bernie who sold gossip items to newspaper columnists — the lowest rung on a shaky ladder. I made it all up and submitted it as a joke, a trick, on a friend who edited a student newspaper. I confessed before the piece was printed. He printed it anyway. When the world didn’t collapse, I tried a few more.
New York magazine, in its early days, began publishing some of these pieces. This was a long time ago, before New York had fact checkers. At the same time, I was also writing conventionally reported life-style pieces — where to buy the best frying pans, which theatres sold the tastiest popcorn, and the like. I can’t remember them anymore. In any event, my book, a collection of the made-up pieces, presented as true, was published in the early ’70s and created something of a stir. To a young man trying to establish himself in a tough business, it was irresistible.
The strangest part of this escapade was that I soon stopped trying to make the stories sound like journalism, and wrote the best prose I could manage. This was when the New Journalism was the bandwagon of the day, and I jumped right on. I got a free pass to insert myself (and my “facts”) into my stories, which was much more fun than writing in an anonymous reporter’s voice, but I was starting to get nervous. Would anyone believe them? Well, if anyone objected they didn’t do it in print. I must have believed that if something was persuasively written, it became legitimate. In time I came to see that passing off largely fictional stories as nonfiction gave my book an authority it hadn’t quite earned.
Later, I wrote a movie, Street Smart, about a reporter who did something similar. Fabricated news also figured in a later book, A Hollywood Education. That one, despite the fictional thread, was appropriately published as conventional fiction.
Readers obviously approach pages with a certain set of expectations when they believe that what they are reading is factual. When the pages are presented as fiction, readers get themselves ready to start dreaming, to slip, if possible, into an imagined world. When I was making stuff up, I wrestled with these questions until I came to believe there is no “better” form, just different ways of pursuing larger truths, which is the deeper goal of all narrative writing.
Violating the rules of fiction and nonfiction was once thought of as bad literary manners. Now a journalist will lose his job and his reputation for doing what I did; these are severe times. Still, while I was inventing characters who were supposed to be living among us, I was aware that what had been a career starter might well become a career ender. But it didn’t: Editors and readers both were a little less careful in those earlier days. What continues to haunt me — remember I’m a novelist not a lawyer — is the illicit thrill I felt by moving readers while also, in a sense, lying to them. I suppose on some level I thought I was creating a truth larger than reality.
Maybe that’s how producers of today’s reality TV shows justify what they do. You could say that the partial or manufactured or produced reality of these reality shows has taken the place of traditional fiction, or, at the very least, has re-shaped it.
As Thomas Kunkel writes in Man in Profile, his new biography of Joe Mitchell, the New Yorker writer started out writing both fiction and journalism for the magazine, until he graduated into writing what he became famous for: a kind of hybrid of fiction and nonfiction that he passed off as journalism. What Mitchell did was of a higher order than what, say, Jayson Blair did for The New York Times, or Stephen Glass did for The New Republic. Those writers, fearing they could not advance their careers properly by sticking to the rules, made stuff up to please their editors and to get ahead; Joe Mitchell made a private kind of fiction that seemed to skip over such bookish concerns as literal truth.
Made up or reported, his stories enchanted and lingered in the mind. They felt real and true, even though any savvy reader could not miss that many of his details were probably invented. Characters sometimes had dialogue that ran on for eloquent pages. As Joe Mitchell and his readers surely knew, that’s not how actual people talk.
Like Joe Mitchell, I didn’t make up news events, but I did make up some characters, or made characters who were based on more than one person, without acknowledging the composite. In my mind I was writing fiction; in other words I was making art, and I think Joe Mitchell must have seen it similarly. A few of mine were pretty good but anyone who has read Mitchell’s stories knows he did it best.
I comfort (and perhaps flatter) myself for the sins of my youth by remembering what Macbeth said when a messenger reports that he has seen Birnam wood moving toward the castle at Dunsinane — in other words, he has been taken in by a trick, an impossibility, but the messenger absolutely believes the truth of what he reports. Macbeth finds it hard “… to doubt the equivocation of the fiend that lies like truth.” On this subject, Picasso is credited with the wonderful remark, “Art is a lie that tells us the truth.” And good luck to any reader or watcher who’s a stickler for distinctions; truth and art have, and must have, mysterious dimensions that defy any conditions you, I, or Macbeth might seek to impose.