Based On a True Story

by | Oct 10, 2006 | Creating Characters, Writers

Why do we waste our time reading fiction, which is a pack of lies about things that have never happened?   I know that when I see the phrase ‘based on a true story’ in the advertisement for a movie, I can be certain that what is depicted in the film will bear almost no relation to anything that may have happened in real life.  The actor who plays the hapless car dealership sales manager who plots his own wife’s kidnapping in the movie Fargo, while preparing for the role, asked the makers of the film to help him find information on the actual events.  There were none, they told him.  They’d made it up out of whole cloth.  The actor was shocked.  But it says ‘based on a true story,’ he said.  You can’t do that!  Why not? they asked him.

Kurt Vonnegut says that the art of fiction is in getting people to laugh and cry at what is nothing but a bunch of marks on a page.

James Joyce, after taking immense pains for several hundred pages to create extraordinarily real characters, does a very interesting thing in the penultimate chapter.  The narrator (actually there is a different narrative voice in each chapter) steps away from Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, and regards them with the distance and dispassion of a scientist.  The chapter is composed entirely of a series of questions and answers.

How did Bloom prepare a collation for a gentile?

            He poured into two teacups two level teaspoons, four in all, of Epp’s soluble cocoa and proceeded according to the directions for use printed on the label, to each adding after sufficient time for infusion the prescribed ingredients for diffusion in the manner and in the quantities prescribed.

After drinking their cocoa and discoursing on sundry topics, Stephen walks away into the night and Bloom goes to bed.  The final question, about Bloom’s going to bed, is, Where?  The answer, which the original printer left out because he thought it was just an inkblot on the page, is in fact just an inkblot on the page, because that is the only place that Bloom can be said to actually exist.

Paradoxically, I find this chapter intensely moving.  In it, we are given a huge amount of information, not to say trivia, about the characters.  They are made more real than ever before.  Bloom, in the dark, bumps his head on a piece of furniture that has been moved.  Getting undressed, he picks at his toenails.  Why does Joyce then deconstruct what he has so painstakingly created?


In a way, fiction is much more real than fact.  The Greek philosopher Plato says that there exists a world of forms, universal archetypes.  The table in that world is much more real than the one that you stub your toe on in the dark.  That one is merely an example of that universal table which floats about in that world of Platonic forms.  Well-crafted fictional characters are more real than real people because they, too, partake of the universal.  Fiction allows the writer to explore the condition of being human in a more universal way than does, say, biography, which is about an individual.  We laugh and cry about fictional characters because we can see ourselves reflected in those marks on a page.


The creators of Betty Boop used to have fun with this, too.  Sometimes, especially in some of the older black and white episodes, Betty would hop back into the artist’s ink bottle at the conclusion of her song and dance.