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In Search of the Novel

Are Novels Real?

Must a novel's setting and characters — and the characters' motivations and stories — bear some likeness to reality? This program explores how novels connect with readers. Teachers, students, and novelists probe the origins of stories.

Goals and Objectives

Upon completion of this workshop lesson, teachers will be able to:

  1. Help students understand how novelists and readers look for and understand the realities and sources behind the story.
  2. Help students explore the relationship between the novel and the objective reality from which it springs.
  3. Design a lesson plan that allows students to probe the novel they are reading and to assess how real—how authentic—they believe it and its characters, plot, setting, and theme to be.

Participants’ Comments and Observations

Katherine Paterson: I was writing it and the previous year I had had a bout with cancer, and although the prognosis was good, who knows? And then, that summer my son’s best friend was struck and killed by lightning and my children, who were afraid I was going to die in the spring, were sure when Lisa was actually killed that life was going to be nothing but disaster from then on and they could hardly let my husband and me out of the house without really being afraid we wouldn’t come back. When I wrote the book, I really was trying to make sense out of my life and out of a tragedy that didn’t make sense. Also, I didn’t realize till later that I was trying to face my own mortality.

J. K. Rowling: Children often ask me if the magic is real in the books. Did anyone ever believe in this? I would say a rough proportion, about a third of the stuff that crops up, is stuff that people genuinely used to believe in Britain; two-thirds of it, though, is my invention. Children ask me, of course, “Do you believe in magic?” And I’ve always said, “No, I don’t.” I believe in different kinds of magic. There is a kind of magic that happens when you pick up a wonderful book and it lives with you for the rest of your life. That’s my kind of magic. There is magic in friendship and in beauty and metaphorical magic, yes. But do I believe that if you draw a funny, squiggly shape on the ground and dots around and it’s something? Not at all. I find the idea frankly comical.

Arthur Golden: Someone said, “I read novels because I want to live other lives.” And I think that many people who read novels read them because they come to the book hoping for a kind of experience that they can’t have themselves in the real world. They’re not real, of course. But at the same time the best novels do create an illusion of reality. And I’m absolutely sure it’s true that there are people in the world who have closer relationships in their minds with fictional characters than they do with real people. I don’t think that’s the norm, by the way, but it happens. And I think that for all of us who read fiction, there are characters who take on something you might almost call reality.

Ernest Gaines: I write about south Louisiana, the area where I grew up. I have some of the same trees in the background, the same sugarcane fields and cabins and country churches and things like that. These things are real. But the characters are created; the characters are not based on real characters. And the plot is not usually based on any specific thing that happened. I create these things myself. I should hope that the novel is real on this point: someone else has felt the experiences. For example, Jefferson is in prison. How would you feel? Would you feel the same way as Jefferson does? Or if you’re a teacher, would you feel the same way Grant does? Or if you’re one of the students, how would you feel? I would think that a lot of people would feel like the characters. At least I should hope that they are real enough so that you would share their experiences. So in this sense, then, the novel becomes real. Some people have said that the novel is more true than history because the writer hasn’t anyone who he has any definite opinion that he has to live up to, whereas the historian has to write for a certain opinion. In that way the novel is to me very real.

Daniel Keyes: Well, the characters in the bakery in Flowers come from my root cellar, the same place those other ideas came from, because I worked in that bakery when I was in junior high school. I had to earn my first year’s tuition—I was going to go to NYU. So as a teenager, I worked for a bakery. First my job was to sit alongside the driver—there was no back—and I would have to put the bagels and rolls into bags that we left in front of stores. Then I graduated to working inside the bakery beside the bakers. Gimpy was real; I knew Gimpy. I worked for him. I knew Frank. Frank’s name was different, but Gimpy was Gimpy. I knew those bakers and again even at that age, I wanted to know how they saw what they were doing, how they saw me. I knew that they didn’t think much of me because here I was a little apprentice. I had to work by the side of the urn dumping in the raw dough, scooping out for the bagels that they would put in the oven. So as you feel you’re a writer, you look at people in two ways. You look at someone, you’re involved in an event, and you’re in it. But a part of you stands aside and takes mental notes because part of you, them, will become your raw material. So they go into my root cellar…So Gimpy is real. All the characters in that bakery are real. The owner is not real. That’s purely invented. And one of the strange things I notice is that when I invent a character from scratch, most people believe that character more than they believe the real people. That’s because sometimes we writers make a mistake. If I’m modeling a character on a real person, it’s hard for me to get behind that person’s eyes. I mean, I’m looking at the person, I’m observing, I’m trying to see the world as he would see it. So there’s a three-dimensional quality, not that fourth-dimensional quality. When I’m inventing a character from scratch, I’m in the mind because it’s my mind and his mind merging and such characters purely invented seem to be more realistic, more alive.

Orson Scott Card: Where the novel in general comes from is from reality. And that really is even where science fiction and fantasy novels come from. Even though you imagined and you fantasized, nevertheless the root of everything is in true things.

Teacher: We get to the question, “What is real?” I think that if you enter a novel, you enter the world that the author creates and asks you to come in where people can do fantastical things or where things are outlandish or larger than life or different from life as we know it. So a part of what is real to me is the authenticity of how well that universe holds together—the universe that the writer creates. And in the midst of all the fantastical, I want to shy away from the idea that real has to mean factual—that this could actually happen like this. That’s how you know you’ve got a good one—when it rings true.