December 10, 2009

Representation in Fiction and Nonfiction

I was talking earlier today with a friend and fellow writer about voice, but in a slightly different way. We were talking about how, as a journalist writing profiles or features, you are the voice of people who can’t speak for themselves. You put their best foot forward. You are their advocate. You are their emissary, their warrior, their free lance.

It got me thinking about being a writer in general, how what you do is take on voices, whether you write nonfiction or fiction. It’s all about voice and about empathy and, as Steve Almond would say, about loving your characters or your subjects. It’s about understanding the world from their point of view and getting it across as best you can.

In this way, it’s about technique, and while fiction and nonfiction are far apart in some ways, at their base they are the same. They are someone representing someone else, be they real or imagined.

And, weirdly enough, I would say that fiction represents people better and more comprehensively than nonfiction ~ especially better than newspaper reporting and most magazine profiles. Think about it. What do we do in newspapers? We reduce the story to a simple coherence that can be told in one sentence. Now, how can the world, a person, an incident, be accurately represented in one sentence? I say this as someone who’s done some journalism. We may wish the world was that simple. In fiction, and in the nonfiction essay, writers often try to get to the truth with all its complexity and nuance.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the similarity between journalism and fiction is that at their most basic they’re about representing the world and often a person; however, fiction’s better at it, in my humble opinion, because it doesn’t leave so much out. But there are lots of journalists who do their best to encompass the complexity.

What I’m Reading Today: My friend Ken Olsen’s very moving series about 22-year-old infantryman Brendan Marrocco, an Iraq War veteran, on the American Legion site. Parts 1 and 2 of a four part series. I can’t wait for the other two. Very well done.

1 comment:

Pembroke said...

Very interesting post today, Tamara. I think one of the major differences in representing characters in fiction vs. nonfiction is creative license. In most nonfiction, a character is based on a real person, and the author might feel that they don't know them very well, so they can't flesh them out for fear of being wrong. Fictional characters, on the other hand, are the total construct of the author, and they can do whatever they want with them because there is no fear of law suits. Just an idea.