The wonderfully talented, Tanya J Peterson shares the blurred line between reality and make-believe
When I was in elementary school, I learned that “non-fiction” means real stuff and “fiction” means make-believe. I suppose that that’s technically correct. However, as I became first a reader and then a writer, I learned that this black-and-white distinction is an oversimplification.
In novels, where does the real world end and the fictitious one begin? This is a trick question, for there really shouldn’t be a quick and obvious answer. Powerful writing blurs the line between the real and the make-believe.
I have begun to think of novel writing not so much as writing but as story crafting. Story crafting, to me, feels like shaping and molding clay. When crafting a story, two of the questions I wonder over deal with the blurred line between real and make-believe. First, I consider how I can take reality as it pertains to my theme and turn it into a world of make-believe. Then, I ponder the idea of taking the world of make-believe I wish to craft and infusing it with reality so that readers are both transported to a fictitious world and rooted to the real-life rules of that world.
As I mold my clay, I continually bounce around between reality and make-believe. I start with a real-world theme. Then I create characters that will be vehicles to illustrate the theme. The characters are always fictitious, never based on anyone I know or have encountered. Then the bouncing begins. To form various aspects of setting, I start with the real-world, but I fictionalize it as I write. This has a dual advantage: it protects privacy, and it gives my characters their own world unique to them. If they feel out of place in their world, they won’t behave in a believable way, and readers will know that the story is somehow “off.”
I also throw little real-life events into my stories for added depth that real people can recognize. I think that a great number of writers do this, and as I read novels, it’s fun to wonder which scenes are from the author’s life and which are from his or her mind. For example, in My Life in a Nutshell, to be released around the beginning of April, 2014, the main character, Brian, is at a grocery store. He experiences debilitating anxiety, and he just wants to buy his items and get out of the store. He decides to use the self-check aisle, but the machine goes haywire on him. It loudly yells at him to remove an item, then it tells him to put it back. He tries to comply, but every time he does, he’s told to do the opposite. This is based on my own experience with one of those stupid self-check aisles. It actually happened to me months before I even began writing My Life in a Nutshell. I made a note of it when I finally got into my car, thinking that it would be great to include in a story some time. Turns out, it was Brian’s story. I definitely think that I’m not the only story crafter who keeps a collection of real-world events to use in their worlds of make-believe.
The goal of story crafters around the world is to create stories so accurate in the creation of their worlds that readers feel like they’re living in the real world as they read, yet so adept in their crafting of the make-believe that readers feels free to let go of the real world and live for a while in a fake one. When the line between non-fiction and fiction is blurred, the result is not a written novel but a crafted story.
Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
Novelist, mental health writer, & speaker