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Honesty in Fiction

February 4, 2016 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified February 4, 2016

Have you ever noticed how fictional characters seem more  real, more solid—more there—than real people?

They aren’t just larger than life—they’re more substantial.

The issues characters deal with are more critical for their happiness and maybe their lives. They’re often critical to the lives of those they love.

For all their illusory qualities, fictional characters seem uncommonly real and solid. At least the good ones do. The ones that move us. The ones we remember. The ones who reach out from the fictional world, into our world, and change us.

I think one reason they’re so real is their honesty. Their openness.

While we often don’t see the true depths of the people in our real lives, we see a great deal of the heart, mind, soul, and dreams of fictional characters.

As we read, we learn their motivations—what moves them. We learn the dark and momentous moments of their life histories. We learn their most treasured goals.

We know what makes them cry, what gets their goat, what makes them laugh and jeer and cheer.

We know what makes them give in and give up. And we see what trait or traits push them to make the extra effort, often a life-changing effort.

Characters are honest and open with readers in ways that real people aren’t, in ways real human beings can’t afford to be. Not with other human beings.

We hide our deepest selves out of fear or shame or embarrassment. We don’t reveal our whole selves, not to everyone. Maybe not to many.

Maybe not to anyone.

Revealing our true selves is too potentially costly.

As an example, I purposely don’t share my political views with certain acquaintances—being honest in certain venues isn’t worth the hassle. While I know that hashing out differences in opinion can often benefit both parties, sometimes there’s no benefit to sharing the truth as you see it. Not if it costs a friendship or a job. Having it out over some issues isn’t worth the dustup you’d create.

But a character would share. A character would push back and speak out. A character would reveal the opinions and needs demanding an outlet from a turbulent soul.

Through spoken words and actions, a character would reveal the issues churning in the deep places.

And when that character or others are hurt by the honesty that bursts free—when the conflict and tension levels rise—the story is better for it. Stronger. More dramatic. More engaging.

With more at stake, the story is more compelling. It’s at this point, when the reader truly understands what’s actually at stake for characters, that story resonates within the reader. It’s these revelations of truth and honesty that make characters lifelike.


My reminder today is that you allow characters to be honest about their beliefs—political, religious, social, or whatever the field or context. Allow characters to be honest about their dreams, fears, and shortcomings as well.

When characters expose themselves to those who could hurt them, those who could turn their honesty into weapons to wield against them, then you have potent fiction, stories that draw readers deep.

And when those other characters do use revelations against the character who has bared his soul, well, any outcome is possible. The potential for pain and drama increases exponentially.

I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that characters be honest in all their ways—some characters need to be dishonest in their dealings with others for a story to work. What I’m suggesting is that you reveal character weaknesses and beliefs, sometimes to other characters but always to readers. That you make characters clear. That you make sure the curtain is pulled back enough to expose the characters.

No matter what they reveal to other characters, major characters need to be transparent to readers. They need depths and layers, that’s true. But readers should see into the depths and through the layers.

Readers should understand why a character behaves as he does—and what it costs him to behave that way. A character whose motives are hidden will feel incomplete to the reader. She’ll feel unreal, even though hidden motives are common in real people.

To know characters, readers must see why they do what they do.

Motivations and a character’s feelings should be revealed to readers. Characters should be laid bare by the revelations you choose to make; you should leave characters with no place to hide from the reader.

As you write your characters, remember that although they aren’t breathing humans, they need to be seen in their fullness—naked and clear—so that the imaginary becomes real in at least this one way, a way that even real-world people seldom accomplish.

You have to be bold enough to reveal in your characters what you might never reveal of yourself. Your characters aren’t you—while your life might be very much worse were your secrets revealed, their stories are infinitely better when readers learn their secrets.

Make characters reveal themselves honestly to readers. Give readers the full story, every (relevant) element of your major characters open and exposed.



Tags:     Posted in: Beyond the Basics

23 Responses to “Honesty in Fiction”

  1. mobius wolf says:

    Very helpful.
    Makes perfect sense.

    Now to accomplish it. :o)

  2. Scott says:

    Is it ever awkward, frustrating or uncomfortable for you to have to edit manuscripts that contain political views that differ from yours? I imagine that’s another situation where you would probably keep your views to yourself, but you would probably be able to glean the author’s views based on what the views of certain characters are and how those views are presented and favored or not. Is it more difficult to edit something you disagree with?

    • Scott, what a great question.

      I’ve disagreed with those around me for so long—and kept my opinions to myself—that I don’t have much trouble handling viewpoints different from my own. I actually expect most writers to hold different viewpoints and to give those viewpoints to their characters.

      I’m actually surprised when a character expresses viewpoints close to those I hold.

  3. Of all the advancements in the craft of fiction, the movement into the minds of the characters stands out. Fiction is the supreme art form because of its ability to get into the mind. Modern fiction has cultivated the new ground. Perhaps the supreme example is Katherine Ann Porter’s “Jilting of Granny Weatherall.”
    The matter of character honesty or dishonesty in fiction is due to whether the narrator (all stories are told by someone) is omniscient or first-person. By its nature the omniscient narrator is objective and can get into any mind in the story necessary to advance the action and the reader’s understanding of what the story is about. If the narrator says the sky is pink it is pink.
    On the other hand, the first person narrator is by nature subjective and the perspicacious reader knows to be suspect of what the “I” tells us. The “I” may tell us the boy killed the man accidentally but we may see the boy killed the man because the doctor said “A man like him ought not to be let live.” The latter is called Narrative Irony.
    A great deal has been said about characterization but it can be summed up in one word: motivation. As you said, in order to understand a character we must know what moves him.

  4. Steve Lowe says:

    “Of all the advancements in the craft of fiction, the movement into the minds of the characters stands out.”

    Sadly, that’s true. And as you go on to say, the omniscient narrator is the only truly objective one; the first person narrator is subjective.

    And what I find most unfortunate about this ‘advancement’ into the minds of characters is not only that first person narration is too subjective, but it’s too restrictive – on both the writer and the reader. It doesn’t allow the reader to explain *enough* about the world of their story (ie, both sides) from the very limited perspective of a single character.

    And nor do I like the other reason given by writers who use first person, that it: ‘helps the reader to get into the mind of the main character’. Personally, I don’t want to know every single thought inside the protagonist’s head, since that would give away too much of the story too early on. For example, important plot details cannot be held back by the writer – for the benefit of the pace of the plot development, and the ‘surprise’ of the ultimate denouement – if the reader is already ‘inside the protagonist’s head’. And that’s quite apart from the basic logical point that writing in first person amounts to ‘giving away the ending on page 1’. Why? Because if the writer is telling the story as the protagonist, then we all know, perfectly well, that they are going to survive till the end of the story intact. And bang goes any sense of jeopardy or sympathy the reader might otherwise have on the part of the protagonist about any danger they might be facing throughout the story. Which kills any sense of drama for me, and I would suggest, ought to do for every other reader, too.

    I know that first person is – unfortunately – ever more common in modern novels (Lee Child seems to alternate between 1st & 3rd person in each of his books) while Bernard Cornwell seems to use mainly 1st person exclusively. And I know why writers use it; for the same reason that Hilary Mantel writes her historical novels in the present tense (just think about that for a second, everyone). They want the reader to think they’re closer to the story than by using the more ‘distancing’ third person narrative or past tense. But that is to treat novel readers like all those spotty teenagers playing ‘1st person shoot-’em-up’ computer games. Which allows the player/reader to delude themselves into believing that they are the protagonist. But I agree with critics who say that both tactics (1st person narrative & present tense for historical novels) are simply introducing an entirely bogus sense of immediacy.

    Surely, if both the story and the writing are good enough, then the reader ought to be sufficiently involved in it without having to resort to tricks like the above, which ultimately only destroy other aspects of the story-telling process anyway.


    • I like a person who takes a stance. I couldn’t agree more with both your penultimate paragraph and the last. Well said. One of the writers you dinged is the worst best-selling author I’ve ever seen.

      • Phil Huston says:

        I want to stand on a chair and cheer fro Steve Lowe. Knowing that sounds ridiculous. Most of my favorite reading is devoid of “I.” Surely that dates me beyond the Facebook age. I’m not sure, even after reading first person, if “I” could be a fictional “I.” The “eye” of a character is often as important as the “I” of a character. What they see, how they respond or react or interpret will drive a reader into their characters’ “minds” better than the classic “I do/say/think X.” One need only read David Foster Wallace to “see” as a character sees the world, and ultimately who they are in that world. Thank you, Steve, for being lucid, straightforward and succinct.

  5. The last line is most important in this post, Beth. What the writer lays bare of the character must be relevant to the story. Thanks for this post.

  6. Yanais says:

    WOW, this is very important and i believe that we should all remember to have faith in our inner selves

    • A story is a higher truth than what actually happened.

      Art is real; life is melodrama.

      Fiction helps us live our lives better.

      • phil huston says:

        Well told. People want a story. Pretty, well dressed people eating wonderful food, not women with turkey leg arms in dresses a size too small and snot-nosed children in ill-fitting Easter suits with clip-on ties. Allow the brunch to be a fiction and it is better than anything you could ingest to take the edge off.

  7. Steve Lowe says:

    Having only just read what Frank said, above (about a story being a higher truth than what actually happened) I personally agree. Though I always remember that quote from Napoleon, on going into exile the second time, after losing the battle of Waterloo. France was, of course, a nascent Republic; just like the US, with which it had a lot in common, since both had recently ditched ‘Rule by Monarchy’. (Though, as a ‘Republican’ Brit, myself, I have also to point out that we Brits had actually been the original modern ‘Republicans’, having ditched our own monarchy in the Civil Wars of the 1640s :-)

    Anyhow, I digress; so back to the point: Since Napoleon had been facing a coalition of European nations (who were reactionary monarchies, where the ruling elite were terrified of being turned into republics, themselves) he knew that the truth of the French people’s struggle for democracy would get lost in the crowing triumphalism of the victorious allies, intent on telling their own versions of the Napoleonic wars. And my own loose translation of what he said on the matter is:
    “There is no such thing as truth in ‘history’; only a collection of lies which all those involved can agree upon.”

    On ‘Art is real; life is melodrama,’ I’m also tempted to agree. It actually reminds me of a quote from an American wrestler, responding to the claim that wrestling is ‘fake’ (because it’s scripted).
    In actual fact, many wrestlers do get seriously injured, crippled or even killed in the ring or during training. His quote was: “Wrestling is real; it’s *life* that’s fake!” And to an extent, I see what he meant :-)

    Lastly, I agree completely with: ‘Fiction helps us live our lives better.’
    In the mists of time, all those earliest classic Greek dramas were, of course, ‘morality tales’ (just like many subsequent ‘mystery plays’, based on the Bible). I only wish that modern fiction still fulfilled the same role in teaching ‘the reading public’ decent morality/socially responsible behaviour (or at least, that ‘Good usually *ought* to triumph over evil’). Unfortunately, not only is much of modern fiction apparently ‘cyberpunk grunge’, but I am dismayed to find that many creative-writing guide authors actually encourage a sneering, cynical, nihilistic, ironic tone; because that is ‘right-on’ and ‘trendy’ and displays the authors’ ‘artistic integrity’… Where have all the traditional heroes/heroines gone… Sigh! (Okay, so Jack Reacher’s not bad :-)


    • Interesting contributions, Mr. Lowe. I should say add that fiction helps us live our lives better primarily in that we see the problems and mistakes characters make and thus are more liable to make better judgments in our decisions and actions.

  8. Phil Huston says:

    I’m going to resist verbosity and quote one of Steve’s own countrymen, E. M. Forster “Actual life is full of false clues and signposts that lead nowhere.”

    However demeaning that may be to purveyors of the metaphysical from mainstream to outside the fence, in our average lives it is quite true. In fiction we may create or appreciate the struggles, perceptions, judgment and outcomes of more ordered, albeit often more adventurous lives than or own. Morality, integrity, “better” in fiction as in all art is legislative. Yes, the “man” force feeds trends and product, but “art” of all kinds is representative of the culture in which it was produced and in spite of the fact consumers vote with their wallets. Yes again, it appears as if popular, saleable creative output has been reduced to an American Idol karaoke popularity contest, but there are gems to be found. Like diamonds, though, they require excavation, they aren’t just sitting by the other point of purchase items at the checkstand. It’s Aristotelian to call all crap “crap” on the assumption “similar” equates to “same.” Art, however, is no more honest than “history” as what survives is bound by contemporary hegemonics as well.

    As an aside I needed a smarmy English college male character to be a radical poser for lifestyle and chick magnet potential and researched English radicalism. I found the “Ranters,” Steve’s 1640’s radicals. His detractor called him “Baby Che.” and here we are!

  9. Phil Huston says:

    That was a mess. I blame the iPad.