There’s a sharp divide between fiction and non-fiction, and the difference isn’t just about fact or fantasy.
As a former journalist, I learned straight off there’s a series of questions that need to be answered: Who, what, when, where, why and how. If you answer those questions in an article, then you’ve covered the basics. Add some quotes from at least a couple of sources and a reasonable story is produced. The journalist needs to be in control of the story, from start to finish.
My first foray into fiction was similar. I told a story and utilized the old journalism formula here too: Who, what, when, where, why and how. Toss in some dialogue from a few different characters and a structured plot. Not a bad way to create a story and it worked for the thousands of newspaper articles I produced over a twenty-year career. Too bad it didn’t work for fiction.
The difference isn’t just fact or fantasy. After several failed attempts, I realized the difference is about control. In non-fiction, you want to control the narrative. In fiction, you have to let go. Once I learned this, my characters started to talk to me. Not in a literal invisible-people-are-telling-me-what-do way. But I was free to let my characters evolve in a more natural manner instead of forcing them to behave in a constrained way. Their personalities required them to act in certain ways or the story wouldn’t ring true. I’ve rewritten parts of my books and once changed my ending because, while the plot worked, the characters came across like wooden puppets forced to do the author’s bidding.
People are quirky and not perfect, so my characters needed to have faults too. They should get hungry and cranky and have bad hair days. They should also show compassion and fear and a variety of emotions we all juggle every day. Recently, a friend told me that he didn’t like how petty my main character acted in one scene. I like to believe she acted human.
I also like stories that don’t tie up too neatly. People don’t always live happily ever after. Their roofs leak, their job doesn’t quite pay the bills and, as in my Wild Crime series: Did Meredith’s best friend kill someone? Sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t. Of course, this is fiction – so happily ever after is okay too. I write those as well.
There’s room in fiction for all sorts of stories. Open the door. See what happens.