My Daughter recently read the 2006 book “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” by Ned Vizzini.  While reading the book, she thought the fictional High School in the book sounded a lot like a school she considered applying to when it came time to choose a high school.  (In Manhattan we apply to public high and middle schools) So, she researched Vizzini, found that he did indeed attend that particular high school, and more distressing, found that Vizzini committed suicide in 2013.  The manner in which he killed himself was the same method that the protagonist in the book attempted.

Last week, the author of  “How to Murder your Husband” was charged with, you guessed it, murdering her husband. (disclaimer- I have not read this book or done research on the subject)

So what do you think today’s topic is going to be?

After finding out what happened to Vizzini, my daughter asked me “Even if a book is labeled fiction, should we question what the author has written about?  Is it our responsibility to delve deeper into the harsher things authors write?”

I responded- “I don’t know.”

As a would be novelist, I know that I am writing a fictional story.   Are there similarities to me? Sure.  My main character drinks tea.  I drink tea.  It was easy to write a detail about something I know- it added a little depth and didn’t require me to do research. It has become a harmless quirk which makes the character delightful (at least I hope it does- we all know I am not delightful…) But the topic of my story, the plot? Well, that’s fiction…

Let’s just think about Gillian Flynn.  Would you want to be married to her?  I know “Gone Girl” freaked me out.  I actually said “No Way” multiple times as I read it. Could you be married to her and not wonder what was really going on in her head?

So…

Does a reader have the responsibility to wonder if someone is writing fiction, or a thinly veiled memoir? Do the loved ones of an author need to worry if an author keeps writing about disturbing topics? If your significant other, or your co worker or your child is writing about suicide do you say something?

One of the first commandments of fiction writing is “Write what you know”. Under that assumption it would be safe to assume that all fiction contains some truth, or relates to the author in some way. But how do we tell truth from fiction? At what point to we say “Wow.  Maybe this should be looked into.”

Now as Vizzini had been in a mental health facility, I’m pretty confident that his loved ones knew of his struggles.  But what about other authors? What about the ones who write about things, but haven’t had any outward signs?

Should the reader of a fictional work question the content? Or should we just go with the assumption that the work is mostly fiction?

85 thoughts on “Truth or Fiction

  1. Ooh, a very thought-provoking question that I have a feeling I’ll be contemplating for some time now. Here’s my initial reactions: I think, for the most part, we have to treat it as mostly fiction because otherwise we’d drive ourselves insane trying to pick the fine line. Now that is not to say it’s not based on reality/truth to any kind of extension. A lot of my ideas for writing come from personal experiences or what’s happened to people I know. However, I think what ultimately ends up tipping the scales into writing it as fiction instead of a memoir is the way it’s delivered. It’s in the author’s control whereas memoirs (generally) are not. (At least, we have very little say in how things will turn out but only in how we react.) Fiction we believe is based on slim truth with heavy doses of creativity. After all, readers DO love finding similarities in order to connect with characters.
    (Still don’t know if I stand behind this 100% but it’s my gut reaction.)

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    1. Ive always believed that is fiction is fiction. End of story. But, when my daughter asked the question I began to wonder how much we should look into things if they seem odd. I’m not sure now. I wanted to run it up the flagpole to gauge other thoughts

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  2. Timely query on your part. Although not focused on a written work of fiction, I have been kinda-sorta binge watching many of the American Horror Story series episodes that I missed/chose not to watch in the dark prior to starting this new season of Apocalypse. Same producers for all seasons, mostly the same actors and often plot twists that mirror real life. Some of these are really twisted, gory stories, so I have been asking, over and over to myself, “What sort of mind comes up with this stuff?”
    In this case real life, old urban legends, folktales, etc., give influence, but still one must wonder about the mind behind all the murder, disembowelment, and general scary sh*t that goes on in this series. Maybe I should be wondering why I watch it as well… 😉

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    1. My daughter and I got to that exact line of discussion after her initial question. Are people truly creative? Or is there something behind it. She gave me the Gillian Flynn thing. And I question why I watch certain things as well, because I have some bizarre and eclectic taste in culture! But I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole

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  3. No, you can’t assume that a writer puts their own biography into all their work. Not everyone who writes mysteries is planning to kill everyone around them, and fantasy writers are well aware that the dragons and elves they write about aren’t real. Assuming that every author’s biography must always inform all their work is useless when it comes to criticizing their work. Do some authors put their life’s details into their books? Sure. But dark themes and events in a novel are not indicative of a dark mind anymore than bright themes are indicative of a happy mind. If biography determined content, there would be a lot more writers in jail for murder and a host of other crimes.

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    1. I always thought exactly what you stated. But the book with the kid and the suicide….it made me start to rethink my thoughts. I want to believe that fiction is just that… a creative imagination putting ideas on a page. But…..

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      1. Here’s my thing….are there more instances? I mean, Virginia Wolfe? Sylvia Plath? If we delve into stuff, would it fall like dominoes? I’m not sure. I’m going to continue to read fiction as it is…fiction. I don’t want anyone thinking what I write is anything but fiction (my novel) but….when I read other stuff….I just don’t know

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      2. I think part of Plath and Woolf’s initial fame came from their suicides, and then the reading public realized what amazing writers they were. But when you look at just how many books there are out there, with tens of thousands of new titles coming out every year, the notion that every author is just writing their own biography over and over again just isn’t feasible.

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      3. Agreewith the broad statement. I always read as fiction. But I’m going to keep thinking about this. Luckily this thought process started after I reread little women….

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  4. Wow, interesting question. But in most cases, you have to worry about people who are actually doing weird things than the ones writing about it. Truth is stranger than fiction. I’m always amazed when I read about true stories that are much worse than anyone could ever imagine.

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  5. I’ve been working on a novel on and off for at least 4 years. I’ll get stuck and take a break, get unstuck and plow on. I think it has possibilities. However, it begins just after the funeral of the main character’s husband. My husband started reading it, stopped, and asked, “Is this wishful thinking?” I promised it wasn’t; however, I do fret occasionally about how I’d handle his death. So maybe it’s more of a “what if” book.

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      1. I read a lot of sci-fi/fantasy, so much of it is pure imagination, but the characters, be they elves or aliens or humans, are born and die, marry and go separate ways, kill and rescue. It’s what characters do.

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  6. I think the best we can do is to assume that the stuff an author writes comes from issues the author is thinking about — it’s not always directly related to the author but something on their mind at the time.

    I used to paint and found that every so often my paintings would come true. Creativity is a magic thing.

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      1. I think little traits or characteristics are both easy to use because they’re fun, yet also easy to recognize, because sometimes we don’t see ourselves the same way as others

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  7. I don’t think one can assume it is ever pure fiction. In Peter Straub’s earlier books and in Dean Koontz’ there was always a character somewhere, not necessarily a main character that was a abused little boy. It was mentioned in more than one book. Then as I continued to read I realized the child had stopped making an appearance and thought that finally the author had exorcised that particular demon. I think background characters often reveal more about the author. What do you think? Have you noticed that at all?

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    1. I get what you mean about background characyers… since they’re background they don’t stand out. I always thought fiction was straight up fiction. But I’m going to probably start reading differently

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  8. I always read fiction as writing from a creative mind, but you did raise a valid question. I think writing about suicide might be a red flag, but I don’t think the general public should respond. Surely someone who actually knows the author would be in a much better position to judge the seriousness of the situation.

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  9. If we questioned the motives of a lot of fiction writers it would be hard to enjoy their books, especially intrigue and murder mysteries. Do you want to delve into the mind of say, Stephen King? Yes, most writers take from their knowledge and experience in characters or scenes etc, but to me that is what makes them believable and enjoyable to read. You can really get into the story if it has a feeling of truth in it.

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    1. It’s funny that you mention king, because he was the other writer my daughter brought into discussion. She read his book on writing last year and he talks about his mental illness. I like to read things as made up stories, but now I might question things

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  10. Your daughter is VERY astute. She asked some intriguing questions and the fact that she even questioned the fictionality of the book shows how aware she is.
    The dictionary says:
    fiction |ˈfikSHən|
    noun
    literature in the form of prose, especially short stories and novels, that describes imaginary events and people.

    So fiction is supposed to be imaginary. Most authors DO take characters and design parts of them based on a compilation of people they know. But, it is considered fiction if the plot and characters do not exist in real life. I think authors in general use “artistic license” when writing. They change the names to protect any confusion, add differences to cloud the similarities and write what they feel inside. I think a little bit of me is in every character I create. And usually my male protagonists are a compilation of people I have known or would like to know. It just depends what I imagine will work best in my story. If these people actually do not exist, and there isn’t a disclaimer that it is based on a real life person or event etc., then it is considered a work of fiction. MANY real life events inspire writers.

    My personal thoughts are that the books in question WERE fiction when they were written. The fact that the authors committed a crime or killed themselves may or may not have happened before or after they wrote their novels. We can’t predict mental illness.
    Were the books autobiographical in fiction format? Perhaps. There is usually a part of any book or movie stating that any similarity to a living person is coincidence or something to that affect. Authors have to sign a paper in their contract stating it is a work of fiction and not based on real life or real people. They do that so they aren’t sued. So evidently these authors followed legal standards to get published. What happened afterwards is a whole other ball of wax.

    It appeared that both got so into their stories that they crossed over from fiction to fact. It makes me think of the brilliant Robin Williams, who played so many outstanding characters. Mostly fiction, but somewhere in his head, his illness took over and he became lost in one of them and killed himself. What a dark place these people went to. So very sad.

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    1. According to what my daughter read, the author wrote this book as soon as he got out of a mental health facility, so that’s what got her wondering. And she originally thought about this because of the fictional high schools eerie similarity to a nyc high school. I’ve always thought of fiction as simply a creative story. I also think that every writer draws certain traits from real life, but on the whole, things are made up. But she did raise some interesting and valid points, which of course made me think and question. I don’t know how I’m going to read fiction now…

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      1. I hope your daughter brought all that up in class. That would make for a terrific class discussion. It would also be interesting to hear what her teacher’s POV is.
        I think we just have to go with the odds when you read fiction. The majority of writers combine their experiences with their imagination. Think of Edgar Allan Poe. He never walled up a body to hear the Tell-Tale heart. And Mary Shelly never dug up body parts to write Frankenstein, yet their imaginations allowed them to create such macabre stories. Although we do know Poe was a depressive drunk. It’s hard to say what inspires a genius. Shakespeare’s Macbeth committed murder and I highly doubt good old Will killed anyone to gain hold of the throne.
        And then think of this… most Romance writers who create steamy love scenes are little old ladies. Lol. I guess just continue to enjoy your fiction and keep an open mind…. spooky, right? 😳

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      2. Definitely spooky. She actually read this book for pleasure…she saw it on a list of great YA novels so she thought she’d try it out. I think she’s going to read another book by same author to see if there are any tells. For school they read “white teeth” and “Mrs. Dalloway” over the summer so they’re still dissecting those. Don’t get me started on the discussions I’ve had with her about those books…

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  11. I honestly believe that majority of fiction is just that. Sure, you will have authors that pull more from their life than others. You will also have some that write out their fantasies (be they benign or ugly) as a way to live them without actually living them. Others may even write about something as a safe way to work through the issues for themselves that they give their characters. There are numerous reasons why an author will write what they do. As a reader, we can only take it as it is presented to us and how we react to it.

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    1. I’ve always thought of fiction as just that, but my daughter made some compelling arguments. I’m still erring on fiction being made up, but I think I’m going to read differently from now on

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  12. I guess that’s why I’m drawn to reading mostly historically based fiction. Fiction based on a time in our history fascinates me…and in general I can anticipate the outcome. Knowing an author or two, they write about what interests them/what they have experienced in life. If my child started writing about suicide or what I feel is a disturbing topic, yes I would be (very) concerned.

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    1. I like historical fiction, but the problem I’ve had with it, of Kate, is how authors seem to be distorting the past to a certain degree. I read the atomic city girls recently, which was a fictionalized account of the Tennessee workers who participated in building the atomic bomb. I felt like the characters spoke with 21st century sensibility and thought pattern. But into more disturbing topics….I agree….if I noticed a pattern to what my kid wrote, I would delve deeper. I do know that I’m going to look at books a bit differently now that this is stuck in my head

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  13. Interesting line of discussion. I don’t write fiction, but reading it makes me think it’s mostly made up, but with bits of the author’s life and personality thrown in. Largely I don’t think people who write about crime or violence actually have any tendency to do those things. Think how many murder mysteries Agatha Christie wrote. Crime is such a popular genre, so that’s what people write.

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      1. From what I have read about Agatha she wasnt kidnapped at all. Her husband was cheating on her and she up and disappeared. She staged her own disappearance. They found her car and she made headlines. She was eventually found at a spa. Theories are she gave herself a mysterious adventure while she contemplated leaving her husband. A pretty delicious way to cast suspicion on her cheating husband until she was found! Ya gotta love her for it.

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    1. Ha! Is she a vampire? Lol I’m living a joyful life. But there’s no way to stop aging unless you are one of the undead. (I’m teasing.). A good attitude helps but everybody ages. And growing older isn’t a bad thing. We should be afraid of it. I’m 69 years young. We need to embrace it and just enjoy life. But expectations that you are going to feel and look 25 forever is unrealistic. Just be the best you can be at whatever age you are. Writing is an awesome way to stay creative. Hmmmm. I’m writing that vampire novel…. 😉

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  14. The reader can assume or not assume whatever they like. Sometimes a story will be based on a true event, sometimes not. Perhaps if it strikes a chord it would be interesting to research it a little, otherwise…well, life’s too short. It’s not as though the author has some sort of responsibility to draw the reader’s attention to the fact, anyway.

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  15. As a reader I feel it’s not my place to get that involved in an author’s private world. But hopefully, a writer who continually writes about disturbing topics, has family members who really know their inner workings (more than any fan could) and provide help. Stephen King writes about some warped shit, but seems pretty normal otherwise. Imagination is a powerful tool that, for some, is heightened in a way that scares others.

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    1. Funny you mention king. My daughter read his writing book last year for class. He apparently has been suicidal at points and suffers from mental illness. My daughter brought that point up in our discussion. It’s a whole thing I never thought about

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  16. As a writer, I often have people ask me, “What inspired me to write _________?”
    In my opinion, there are always things in fiction that are consciously or unconsciously connected to reality. But also, sometimes it’s connected to what we wish would happen or think should have happened.
    Your daughter is so insightful and I enjoyed the comment thread as well. No, I wouldn’t want to be married to Gillian Flynn.

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    1. My daughter and I have some pretty interesting conversations about books and theater and all things related. She brings a very different perspective and some of her observations are thought provoking. I see myself questioning some of my thoughts after I’ve spoken to her. She brought up Gillian Flynn and I thought…wow…would I be second guessing everything?

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  17. Every fiction comes from life. If it’s a fantasy, it still comes from the author’s emotional reality which drives the creation of the specific world. If you write about murder, it may be you have a desire to fight evil, not commit it. On the other hand, people may use fiction to explore feelings that are not considered appropriate. And “feelings are not facts, but we have to deal with the fact that we have feelings.”

    A lot of people have wanted to kill someone. Wanting to kill someone does not a murderer make, a distinction which I think our society might be losing its grip on recently … but meanwhile, if someone is writing about suicide, yes, that *is* definitely a red flag. Respond as appropriately as possible now. Perhaps they’re just intrigued or worried about the social wellbeing of the world, current issues, etc. However, friends and family should inquire and, if indicated, offer support.

    So for fiction: it may not all be true, but some of it is. Charlotte and Emily Bronte’s books owed huge debts to the author’s childhoods, (I blogged on this, http://www.classicaleducationtoday.com/2017/07/08/what-the-bronte-sisters-read/) and are considered reference works for their biographies, and the same is true of Ernest Hemingway, whose Mary Dearborn biography (there’s been a lot of Hem bios) I am currently reading.

    Look, if they say it’s fiction, it’s often to protect the guilty and the innocent. And some of it is made up.

    I had no idea you were a novelist! Write on, and thanks again for the thought provoking questions.

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    1. Thank you for thoughtful comment. I’ve always approached fiction as fiction, but my daughters point made me consider the larger picture. I know that there are certain authors with direct parallels to their lives, but there’s a difference between writing from personal experience to writing with correlation to future events. But, that being said, I don’t want authors stifled because they choose to deal with darker subject matter, because it could be 98% imaginary. Thank you for more brain food

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  18. I wanted to say I’ve been thinking about this thread all week. I’ve been wondering: could I be wrong? Are there some people who write or read some type of fiction and it has absolutely nothing to do with who they are? Not sure, still pondering.

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      1. I’ve done some writing and had a strange experience with something that came out later in a TV show. I’ve done a little studying and came to some out of the box conclusions. I will share what I found if you are interested. I was just curious if you have experienced anything odd while writing.

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