Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Fiction as "Experiments in Life"

Nineteenth century novelist George Eliot characterized her fiction as “experiments in life.” In my high school days, Eliot’s fiction was required reading. If I remember correctly, I had to read Silas Marner, and for me it was an experiment in life all right—an experiment in the agony of writing a book report.

But I’ve always liked George Eliot’s characterization of fiction as “experiments in life.” I like it because I think it comes as close as anything to describing what fiction writing is all about. Fiction writers create a place in time—that is, a setting. They populate that setting with human characters or creatures with humanlike characteristics that they prod into action. Then they keep the action going by giving their characters problems to solve, goals to meet, obstacles to overcome, stakes to play for, crises to face. And along the way, the characters reveal themselves to the readers. Through their words and actions, the characters show who they are. They show who they are in the same way that we inhabitants of this so-called “real world”—show who we are through our words and actions.

That’s my sense of what George Eliot meant when she characterized her work as “experiments in life.” Fiction, at its best, reflects the essence of the human experience. For me (and, I would say, for all of us) every day, every moment of one’s existence, is an experiment in living in a particular setting—that is, in a time and place and circumstance that is unique to the individual. Good fiction mirrors life. That’s why it can be said that a good story allows you to experience life vicariously—because you put yourself in the place of the characters. Fiction and life become intertwined.

I’m often asked “How much of your fiction comes from your own personal experience and how much is ‘made up’?” The answer to that question for me—and I think for all fiction writers—is this: Some of the fiction I write comes from my own personal experience, but all of it is made up.

If that sounds like a contradiction, consider this. In his novel The World According to Garp, John Irving has his protagonist, Garp, who is a writer, say this: “Tell me anything that’s ever happened to you . . . and I can improve upon the story; I can make the details better than they were.”

That’s what fiction writers do—or, at least, try to do—make their stories more compelling, more emotive than real life. When you read a book or see a movie that says “based on a true story,” it means that the writer has taken the story and enhanced it by filling in the details and giving the storyline a dramatic arc. The writer has taken dramatic license with the story; he/she has fudged the facts to make the story more compelling.

Because, unless one is writing autobiography, one’s own personal experience is merely a launching pad for storytelling that should eventually soar well beyond the limitations of personal experience. George Eliot’s “experiments in life” are a perfect example of this.