What is Fiction?

robert-fordAt one point in HBO’s Westworld (don’t worry, no spoilers) Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) gives a speech about stories, about the value of fiction. He references a belief that fiction elevates — or at least illuminates to good value — the human condition. The belief also holds that those who read a lot of fiction are in some sense “better” people.

The idea is controversial on several grounds. Firstly, it’s hard to define what makes people “better,” and you can’t measure or test what you can’t define. Secondly, even if “better” is defined, not everyone will agree with the definition. Thirdly, there’s a nature-nurture aspect that makes comparisons like this very hard to tease out of any data you can gather.

Maybe a place to start exploring the idea is to first define “fiction” and go from there…

In the speech that Ford gives, he says:

“Since I was a child I’ve always loved a good story. I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us, and to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth.”

Besides referencing the belief about the value of fiction, he also states that fiction is lies.

Which is true, as far as it goes, but those who study storytelling often put it a different way: There is truth, lies, and fiction.

[Wonderfully, the fundamental rule about fiction follows the well-known fiction — or at least writing, but especially common in fiction — Rule of Three!]

readerIf fiction is lies in search of a deeper truth, then it must be something between them. Or perhaps a synthesis of both.

In a sense, the lies are on the small-scale — the plot and the characters — but the truth is on the large-scale — the theme and the meaning.

That fiction is something other than truth or lies becomes more obvious if we contrast fiction with facts.

Facts are either true or false. A statement about facts is either true or false. (The logic of such a statement is either valid or invalid, but that’s a separate topic.)

Fiction, which is non-factual by definition, is either “authentic” or not. It is the authenticity of fiction that measures its connection with the human condition. The more authentic a piece of fiction is, the more it tends to engage or resonate with us.

Even very silly fiction — broad comedy and slapstick — can speak to us when it has authenticity. We can connect with the characters who, despite existing in a preposterous state, retain their humanity which allows us to identify with them.

Alternately we may recognize that, although the situation is ridiculous and made extreme, it proceeds from authentic experience. We then connect with the authentic kernel of truth, the seed, from which the silly tree grew.

But a lack of authenticity takes us out of the story, it breaks our willing suspension of disbelief. We no longer identify with the characters or situation. It feels false to us.


Book StoriesIn storytelling there is the idea of “transparency” — the degree to which the storyteller and the storytelling mechanism become invisible so that the reader or viewer becomes completely caught up in the story. The ideal is to enter the story completely, to be there.

“Style” is the opposite, or at least the enemy of, transparency. For example, surrealism can eliminate the idea of narrative entirely, leaving the viewer or reader to interpret the experience as they will.

As a general rule, the more stylized a story is, the harder it is to speak truths through it. One mark of a master storyteller is their ability to speak authentically through surrealism (which is exactly why I’m not sure what I think about David Lynch).

As a general rule of thumb, the more attention a storyteller draws to how they tell the story, the less attention can be paid to the story itself. It requires a great deal of skill to do both well.


The idea that fiction makes people better seems to come mainly from the idea that the more life one experiences, the “wiser” one is. Fiction — if it is authentic — does provide a wealth of life experience far beyond any one person’s ability to actually live through.

To see life through the eyes of a 19th century whaler, a Russian royal princess, a slave in the antebellum deep south, an astronaut stranded on Mars, or any of an infinite cast of characters, seems necessarily to grow the thoughtful reader.

Book ChildExperiencing the authentic lives of others improves our theory of mind — our ability to recognize the internal mental states of others. It creates empathy and understanding.

To understand the actions of well-drawn authentic characters requires us to understand their thoughts and feelings, it requires us to understand them.

Film and television focus primarily on the actions of its characters and usually does not give us access to their internal mental states. We are carried along by the visuals and activity. Narration, one method of revealing internal thoughts, is usually considered a Bad Thing in the visual arts. A key rule of thumb is: Show it, don’t say it.

I can’t help but wonder if our love of visual storytelling hasn’t taken us away from an important source of wisdom: good literary fiction. And if that isn’t part of what seems (at least to me) as a collapse of culture and shared experience.

How many people seek out great fiction or even realize its value? Many do consume various forms of very shallow fiction — what I think of as “beach” or “airplane” books. These are quick snacks, not nearly as nutritious (or ultimately as delicious) as the banquet of great fiction.

As I worry about where society is headed, our embrace of the shallow forms of storytelling, and our rejection of the deeper (and, yes, harder) forms of fiction, are — if not a cause — at least a sign or symbol.

Whither humanity? I’m no longer sure it’s a viable proposition.

Save the human race! Go read books! Lots of them!!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

6 responses to “What is Fiction?

  • Steve Morris

    A good question, and an interesting answer. My wife recently wrote this article: http://www.thegoodwriter.com/the-difference-between-genre-fiction-and-literary-fiction/ which is related.

    One thing I have often wondered about is style. In many areas, we complain that people choose style over substance. In writing however, we often complain that people choose substance over style. In particularl, best-sellers are often poorly-written, but have a strong story. Literary fiction often has little story, but a great deal of attention paid to the writing itself.

    It often surprises me that best-selling books can sometimes be so badly constructed, with wafer-thin characters, and clunky writing. I wonder how people have the patience to read them.

    Any ideas what might be happening here?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Interesting article! Later she writes that genre and literary aren’t mutually exclusive, and I quite agree. I think they’re on the same spectrum of written storytelling, but obviously at different points on that spectrum.

      I’m not sure I agree the difference can be summed up by movement versus thoughtful, but that does seem an aspect of it. Moby Dick or A Christmas Carol, for example, surely qualify as literary stories, but they also have page-turning aspects. As she said, not mutually exclusive.

      And in being not mutually exclusive, cannot account entirely for the differences. But it’s sure hard to quantify what else is involved!

      “Literary fiction often has little story, but a great deal of attention paid to the writing itself.”

      That might be a slightly different definition of style than I meant. There is the sense of “writing style” (dark versus light, fast versus slow, first person versus third, and all the “rules” of good writing). Comparing it to fashion, it would be the kind of fashion style in making yourself look good for a given context. Good-fitting suits that are appropriate, the right ties, belts, and shoes… that sort of thing.

      The style I was mentioning in the post is more the thing we mean when we talk about style over substance. “High style” so to speak, like surrealism or other modes that draw attention to the writing itself. Comparing this to fashion would be the kind of style where clothes call attention to themselves, often by being wildly inappropriate for the context.

      The first kind doesn’t call attention to itself, at least not to the untrained eye, although those who really know fashion will recognize it instantly. The second kind blares out to any eye, trained or not.

      To my eyes, in art these days, we have a lot of the latter and not enough of the former.

      “Any ideas what might be happening here?”

      Absolutely. Same reason people eat fast food. Easy and doesn’t require anything from you.

      That spectrum on which literary and genre exist can be compared to food. Literary is fine dining; genre is fast food (or simple basic fare, at best). Nothing wrong with the latter, but you wouldn’t really want to live on it. And you don’t want to miss out on fine dining at least once in a while.

  • reocochran

    I won’t wax poetic but I do feel some of the books touted as bestsellers are not quality books.

    I like when books include good, intelligent language and some elements of research or knowledge displayed within the context of the literature.

    I read some of the mainstream books to test whether or not I will feel it is worth seeing them made into films. Not impressed with how far some non-literary books make it on the best seller lists. Other times, I find the characters “call” to some deep part of me, then I feel good about their progress among the public readers.

    I ramble more than I should but hopefully I touched on part of what you were talking about, W.S.

    Mom is declining in her thinking and processing. When she has clarity, though, she points out that journalists, writers and newscasters are “dumber than they used to be.” I can agree with this!! 😀

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Sorry about your mom. We went through that with my dad. It sucks for all involved!

      Yeah, “bestseller” and “quality” are often very different things. McDonald’s hamburgers are also “bestsellers” (umpty-ump trillions sold!) but no one would confuse them for quality burgers. Plenty of room in the world for McDonald’s fare as well as fine dining (and all points between), but it’s not a good idea to live on “junk food” (or even just “fast food”) your whole life.

      Yet we live in a world that does just that, and I think the results speak for themselves. There is a direct line that can be drawn from how stupid we’ve allowed our society to become and things like Brexit and Trump. For well over 40 years I’ve been railing against the “Death of a Liberal Arts Education” and fiction is such a big part of the those Arts. We ignore that great body of thought at our peril.

  • Derek B

    Hey Master Smythe. My oldest son (14) loves reading and easily reads multiple books a week. He is super into Fantasy which is fine, but he has a hard time venturing out of that genre. Do you have any recommendations on great fiction that he might be able to really get into, perhaps something that is outside fantasy?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Well, fair warning, my knowledge of books since 2000 isn’t anything like it is for books before that period, so what little I can offer may be pretty outdated. Also: not sure if you mean science fiction as opposed to fantasy or straight fiction as opposed to fantastic fiction. Given that I’ve always considered SF (in all forms) to be, truly, “fantastic” fiction (in the common sense of the word), I have very little to offer outside that realm (other than a love of detective, and some spy, fiction).

      The most recent non-SF book I read was The Sand Pebbles (see my post about the book (and movie)). Not sure if a 14-year-old would go for that. Likewise my other big non-SF fav, Pillars of the Earth. Which has a sequel, World Without End. And I really love Craig Ferguson’s novel, Between the Bridge and the River. That one might be too adult, though.

      That kind of taps me out on non-SF fiction. Other than the classics, of course: Moby Dick, Alice, Treasure Island, and so forth. A Christmas Carol is one of my favorites; read it every year.

      Most modern non-SF fiction doesn’t grab me much. The exception is (police or private) detective fiction. I’ve always loved a good murder mystery. There are the classics: Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, and (of course) A.C. Doyle. I have some modern mystery authors I like a lot: Robert Parker, Tony Hillerman, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Lawrence Block. Many others.

      If you did mean non-fantasy SF, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books might be one way to transition from fantasy to more SF-like writing. Alan Dean Foster wrote a lot of stuff in both genres. His Spellsinger series is fantasy, his Flinx series isn’t (and stars a young guy with a pet “dragon” lifeform, which might be interesting to a 14-year-old).

      Roger Zelazny is another who wrote books in both hard and fantasy genres. Larry Niven has also done some fantasy, but is mostly very hard SF. The masters: Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov, of course. I’m less a fan of Robert Heinlein, but his early stuff is classic.

      Piers Anthony is another author who’s done fantasy (Xanth series) and hard SF. Likewise Fred Saberhagen. Harry Harrison and Keith Laumer wrote a lot of comedy SF that’s mostly hard but often with fantastic elements. Harrison has a trilogy where the dinosaurs never died out and now rule the world.

      Ender’s Game (and sequels), by Orson Scott Card. might be a good recommendation. The first, especially, follows a young boy (who becomes Ender). Plus there’s a movie that didn’t suck. Card wrote a lot of other very readable SF.

      James P. Hogan wrote a lot of very hard, but readable, SF books. (I can also recommend Larry Niven, Hal Clement, and David Brin, for some good hard SF. Going even further in that direction, Greg Egan writes diamond-hard SF that almost requires a degree in mathematics and theoretical physics to completely understand.)

      Allen Steele writes some good sagas: hard-bitten astronauts trying to make a living in space. His Coyote series is about colonizing an alien planet.

      Heck, there’s a huge body of Star Trek novels, too. There’s a series for each of the TV shows. Also a huge amount of Star Wars novels, but I’ve never been that interested in those.

      Seems like most SF TV shows eventually develop a body of fan fiction. There’s a bunch of Stargate stuff, for example.

      I understand there’s a fair bit of YA SF & Fantasy, although I’ve gotten the impression it leans heavily towards the Fantasy side. (Not being a YA, or raising one, I haven’t paid much attention.)

      Hope this helps!

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