Stories and Fiction and Truth

I’ve already said that history contains the word “story,” and most people think stories are “made up,” as opposed to the truth, which is, well, the truth.  Let’s try to clear this up a little. Story is what we think is a  uniquely human (I say think because I swear I’ve seen animals, including my own cats, plotting and scheming, and I think there must be some stories being told) way of making meaning out of facts and events. The classic structure involves a character we care about who wants something, and struggles to get it against more and more difficult obstacles. Eventually, the character either succeeds or fails, and is changed in some meaningful way by the struggle.

Fiction is a particular kind of story, one that is created from a writer’s imagination. It may contain real people, places, and events (as my fiction does), or it may be wholly imaginative. This kind of story is most definitely “made up,” so it is isn’t true—or is it? That depends upon the definition of truth that is used. Objective truth, which refers to that which can be measured or verified, cannot be applied to fiction, and so many would say that fiction is not true. Others, including Faulkner and Hemingway, claimed that fiction was often more true than real life, because it revealed insights into what Faulkner called the “verities, the universal truths of the heart:” love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. These subjective truths are the themes that fiction writers try to wrestle with when they write, and the stories are the vehicles they use. If the writer is good enough, then the stories are good enough to help the reader learn something new about the human condition.

So, what about history, then? If it contains story, is it “made up,” or is it true? The distinction matters, because the academic discipline of history requires a foundation of verifiable, objective truth that can then be subjected to interpretation by trained scholars whose insights create the story of history that we understand, tell, and pass on to future generations to create heritage. The facts do not change over time, but the interpretations often evolve as new evidence or intellectual or cultural progress changes the way we view existing evidence.

Fiction writers declare their work as imaginative, on one of the first pages of a novel. There is a disclaimer that the people and events in this work are products of the author’s imagination, or are used fictionally, which means they are not claimed as objective truths. Many fine works of fiction are historical fiction, imaginative reinterpretations of facts and events and people, and may help reveal new aspects of the human condition.

As I’ve said before, the stories told about both objective and subjective truths can be used for good or evil, but it is important to identify history and distinguish it from fiction and imagination and heritage, so we can engage in dialogue about the meaning of verifiable facts and events rather than fight over whose story is more valid.


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