One of the things you learn fairly early on in your school life is that fiction is made up and non-fiction actually happened, or is about real things. Some people don’t read fiction because it’s not about real events and real people. They look down on it as not worth their time because it isn’t real. Unfortunately, as a reviewer, I have read a lot of fiction that isn’t worth my time, but not because it’s fiction, not even because it’s not good fiction, but because it’s not real.
Am I saying that speculative fiction isn’t worth my time because it isn’t about real things? No; I’m saying that good speculative fiction, like all good fiction has a certain reality to it. Can fiction be real? Yes, because not everything in fiction is purely fictional, and the most powerful fiction, that with the ability to move us, to educate us and to inform us has a lot of reality in it. Even if the main character is an alien on a hostile planet with a green sky, if that alien thinks and feels and reacts to events in a human way then there is some reality in that. If the events in the story reflect the kind of issues we experience in our world—especially if it is an analogy—then there is an even greater reality in that. The best speculative fiction depicts classic human struggles—political, cultural or personal. But other fiction is even more real than that. The characters and their story may not be true, but it may be based on a true story, or set in a real situation and, as such, can be a powerful way to educate or raise the readers awareness of a situation.
I recently completed a manuscript appraisal on a story about a Palestinian family. Although the story was fiction, the kind of events described happen on a daily basis to Palestinians living under Israeli rule. This was a very real story. It illuminated the sad plight of the Palestinian people and it had me in tears. Would it have been more powerful if it was a true story in every way? Perhaps, but how many true stories have all the elements of a good read? And if you want to portray a situation in its entirety, it is unlikely that any one life would do that. So a novelist may combine several stories into one, or extrapolate on real events and situations to create a new one, a fictional one, but one based on the kind of thing that does or could happen.
If we take something from this man’s life story and something from this one, and add something that happened to this woman, and something that happened to another woman’s daughter and put it all into one story, it becomes fiction. Yet each element could have actually happened to someone.
Good historical fiction is grounded in reality; it gets its facts right. But even if the central character is a historical figure and the life depicted follows the known history, it’s called fiction because the author will be filling in the gaps between the known facts with their personal interpretation of the character and their interactions with others.
Then there are alter egos, when an author writes about a character and life that is based on themselves and their life, but with embellishments and name changes. How real is this fiction? Obviously it varies a lot, but if it were a completely true story, it would be an autobiography not fiction. In these instances, we will never know just how much is based on true events, but the point is that there is a great deal of reality and even truth in such stories.
Often authors create characters that reflect a mixture of real personalities. For example, I see both myself and my daughter in Ariel, the protagonist in the Diamond Peak Series, and Prunella Smith is unashamedly based on me, particularly her contemplative side. She lives where I live, but not in this exact house. She was a dancer like me, but I was never a ballet dancer in a big company. She is a practicing Buddhist and owns a Burmese cat like me, but she has no husband or child and is younger than I. A mainstream publisher published her debut novel, I published my novels myself, and so on. Though Prunella is similar to me in many ways, she is not me; she is an alternate me. She took the paths I didn’t take, and came to the same places by alterative routes.
She is crazier, more outspoken and has a much more colourful past, and out of the 20,000 words I have written so far, apart from the meditative experiences, only around 900 actually happened. Even so, Prunella Smith, author: Worlds Within Worlds is very real because Prunella’s present life—just one of the worlds within worlds—is based on the reality of being an author and reviewer at this time in history. This fiction illuminates the kind of issues real authors face, and delves into Buddhism and meditative experience, the nature of creative mind and even touches on the situation in Tibet. Even with the fantasy elements of dreams, and editing a fantasy novel, there is a great deal of reality and truth in my new work of fiction.