Can you ethically fake the truth? I don’t mean by writing ‘fiction’ - all storytellers do that, of course - but by inventing wholly fictive characters, quotations or events for your stories and then solemnly presenting them as fact?
You can! And it’s a proven strategy for literary success. Dare you try it?
The acclaimed British playwright Tom Stoppard recently confessed (The Times, 13 June 2015) that he made up a ‘real’ professor J. F. Slade (1989-1959) for his play Arcadia plus a ‘real’ quote from that previously unknown luminary. In twenty years, nobody had ever questioned it.
Literary hoaxes go back a long way.
The first was Socrates. Yes, that Socrates. The legendary philosopher. I doubt if he ever existed. Plato and his three chums made him up over a dish of wine as a safe mouthpiece for their own dangerous ideas. They then killed him off with a surfeit of hemlock before anyone could rumble them.
Sir John de Mandeville wrote a fabulous account of his voyages to Africa and the Far East in the 14th century. All of Europe believed them. Yet they were false.
Defoe’s Journal Of The Plague Year, Martin Scriblerus, Ossian, Chatterton’s ‘medieval’ poems, Hitler’s Diaries … hoaxes all. Yet together they deceived millions.
More recently, Hodder & Stoughton published a best-seller Such Men Are Dangerous (1969). It purported to be the true confessions of a CIA agent, Paul Kavanagh, hiding for his life. The publishers claimed they had no idea who Kavanagh was, or where he might be, and would he please step forward to accept his royalties?
Thousands fell for it, myself included. Only many years later was it revealed to be a hoax, a conspiracy between the publisher and crime novelist Lawrence Block.
Does this idea thrill you?
To present total invention as sombre fact, and have your readers believe it? If it doesn’t, you’re not a creative writer. You’re in the wrong blog. Please go at once to The Huffington Post. (It does the same thing, of course, but with less finesse.)
The idea of ‘faking the real’ thrilled me so much that I used it in my PhD novel, The Apothecary’s Tales. The novel got me a doctorate (by the sympathy vote). I pretended that my hero, circa 1623, had planted a rose bush in his garden and it still flourished to this day! Moreover, he had buried his diary, which was the core of the novel, beneath its roots.
As proof, I included a ‘real’ clipping - dated 21 January 2009 - from my local newspaper The Bucks Herald. It recorded a battle between conservationists and literary historians about the ethics of digging up the world’s oldest rose bush (priceless) to exhume an ancient diary (even more priceless).
Wicked, eh? But it got worse.
I tried to persuade a friend at the Herald to smuggle that fake report into the newspaper’s digital archives. Readers could then find it on-line for themselves and reassure themselves that my novel was, believe it or not, the factual truth.
Alas, my friend refused, muttering something preposterous about ‘journalistic ethics’. But the ‘fake archive’ gambit has a distinguished precedent.
Between 2000 and 2005, the historian Martin Allen secreted 29 faked letters into Britain's National Archives. Why? To validate the claims in his history book Hidden Agenda that the Duke of Windsor had helped Germany to conquer France. Creative! The police admired his duplicity so much that they decided not to prosecute.
How can you use this wicked idea - of presenting total fiction as ‘real’ - to write engaging stories?
First, tell yourself that it’s ethical. Truly. Many great authors have done it.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) was presented as an edited version of a real ‘discovered’ document. Daniel Defoe was in no hurry to reveal himself as the true author of Robinson Crusoe (1719); he said that Robinson Crusoe was. In 1740, Richardson pretended that the letters and journals of Pamela had fallen into his hands by 'a lucky turn of fortune.' Sir Walter Scott claimed that Rob Roy (1817) was sent to him by an 'unknown correspondent'.
And so it goes...
Second, understand that ‘faking the real’ is very useful. It bypasses the first problem every author faces when writing a story. How do you immerse the reader in a fictive, and possibly ridiculous, world? Easy. Present your story as indisputably true and readers won’t have to struggle hard to ‘suspend their disbelief’ (as Coleridge put it).
Do the job cleverly and they won’t disbelieve your story to start with.
That’s cunning. I love it. Don’t you?
Here are three cunning ways to ‘fake the real’:
1. Give your story a convincing frame.
Arthur Golden published his award-winning novel Memoirs Of A Geisha (1997) as the true diary - written in the first person - of a Japanese woman, Sayuri. He prefixed it with a scholarly article by its alleged translator Jakob Haarhuis, a fictional professor of Japanese at New York University.
Only in the small print at the back did he come clean. Every word was fiction.
By then, it didn’t matter. Readers had been delightfully duped, their pleasure enhanced by the delusion that the novel was a documentary.
Pierre de Laclos went even further in his scandalous novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782). He ran a double bluff.
First, he claimed - in a prelude - that his account was true. He then presented a tongue-in-cheek statement by the ‘publisher’, disowning the work and suggesting that the author was a lying rogue: ‘We have strong reason to suspect that this is a work of fiction ... A number of his characters are so immoral that it is impossible to imagine them living in this century.’
The trick worked. Les Liaisons Dangereuses became a best seller. And it illustrated a great truth: deny a scandal and it will be believed.
What fun you might have, assembling a fictive cast of po-faced publishers, editors, translators and other drones to validate your lies!
2. Weave small undeniable facts into your whopping great lies.
In her historical novel According To Queeney (2001), Beryl Bainbridge mixes fact with total invention to show us lurid incidents in the life of Dr Samuel Johnson. I thought I knew Johnson pretty well but I’d never heard of half of them. (Sodomy? At Versailles? For sure, Johnson’s biographer Boswell never spoke of it.)
But so meticulously did Bainbridge present the incidents I had heard about, that I was tempted to believe her lies.
In a contemporary novel, you might refer to real newspaper reports, Wikipedia articles, or other records that can easily be checked. Then attach them to great lies.
3. Simulate a style and genre that is not fictional.
Present your story in a manner that’s typically used for true accounts. A diary, memoire, journal, series of letters or emails, blog posts, transcripts of recorded conversations, even the comments in a web forum.
The formats themselves will give your tale credibility.
But be careful to avoid the obvious devices of fiction, such as scene hangers at the end of chapters, conveniently rounded plot lines, and passages of dialogue quoted verbatim a long time after the event.
Boswell got away with page after page of quoted dialogue in his Life Of Johnson (which, of course, was not fiction) because he did carry a notebook with him at all times. He’d shamelessly write down people’s conversations even as they spoke. (Burke complained that his ‘habit of recording’ killed all conversation.)
However, David Morehouse fell into the implausibility trap with Psychic Warrior (2000). It still purports to be a true account of the author’s work for the CIA as a remote viewer or psychic spy. Predictably, the CIA dismissed it as ‘a novel’. Total fiction. They had a point.
Morehouse presents long detailed conversations that had allegedly occurred many years before, from memory. How come? Hm…
If you go this ‘true account’ route, explain that your narrator has the trick of perfect recall, or the habit of compulsively writing down every incident in his life as soon as it occurs. (And some people do. You’ll find them at Twitter.) Or he’s equipped with a Google app that does it for him.
Why should you wish to present your fiction as ‘fact’?
I agree, it’s not for every tale. But if you pull it off you’ll give your story the ostensible credibility of a factual news event. These things did happen. (Or so it seems.) You’re over the first hurdle. You’ve got your reader believing in your story world.
They’ll put your story down with a sigh. “I can scarcely believe it. Yet I must. It’s true.”
Have you ever read a fictional story that was so compelling you thought it was true (although it wasn't)? Or written one yourself that deceived your readers it was 'real'? Please share your experiences below. Every comment gets a fast, thoughtful reply.
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, is founder of Writers' Village. Like to be alerted to fun and useful posts like this in future? Join our free 14-part mini-course in successful fiction writing and you'll never miss another post. Plus you'll immediately receive two big ebooks without charge: 15 Wily Ways to Write Better Stories and How to Win Writing Contests for Profit. Gain them all here.
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Posted by John Yeoman. Posted In : The Writing Craft