“Write What is True”

…which isn’t necessarily the same as “writing the truth.” At ComicMix.Com, John Ostrander, one of our comic book writing idols, is all over this with some very good advice:

John Ostrander: What is True? – by John Ostrander (ComicMix.Com)

One of the primary rules for writing is “Write what you know.” As I’ve discussed before, the corollary question becomes “what do you know?” I can write characters that, on the surface, are totally unlike me because underlying there are elements that true for both of us. Granted, I need to get the details of those lives correct but the essentials – the feelings, the doubts, everything that makes us human – are the same. I just have to find out where that is in me and what it looks like.

So, for me, the more important rule is “Write what is true.” That will vary from person to person, from character to character. The corollary question then becomes “What is true?” I’m not asking “What is The Truth?” because I don’t think that The Great Objective Truth exists or, if it does, it can be perceived as such by each of us through the lenses of our own existence. What I’m asking is “What is true?” for each person, be they a living and breathing reality or a fictional creation.

Socrates famously said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I would add: “The unquestioned belief is not worth having.” As kids, we’re all given a set of beliefs, be they about God, country, family, love, values and so on. That’s fine; we all have to start off somewhere. Parents have their beliefs about what is right and wrong, good and bad and it is both their job and their duty to instill those in their children. As the children grow and come to adulthood, it is their job to examine those beliefs and see if they are true for them. Do you believe something because your own experience, your own questioning, has brought you to that place or are you there because someone told you that is true and it’s what you must believe?

That’s my problem with dogma. It tells me that this is the truth and this is what I must believe whether my own experiences agree with it. It may be that my own experiences and my own questioning will bring me to the same place, the same conclusion or belief and that’s fine. I will have then earned that belief; it’s not a hand-me-down. It’s mine.

Dogma, whether religious, political, social or what have you, is easier. Questioning takes time, takes effort and may take you to places that you’re not comfortable to visit. It can shift your foundations. My questions about the existence of God made me feel like I was on a trapeze in the dark. I had just let go of one bar but I couldn’t see if there was another trapeze swinging towards me or if there was a net below. It’s still that way. I’m on a boat in the ocean but I don’t know which port is the destination or how long it will take to get there. The voyage, however, is necessary.

Where I wind up may not be your truth, and that’s fine. I accept that what is true for you is your truth and valid. It just may not be mine. Our truths could be opposite and we both may feel compelled to act on our truths and that may bring us into conflict. That’s also fine. I can oppose you and respect your truth without accepting it for my truth.

As for us, so with the characters we write. The best stories challenge the characters on a deep level, on what they regard as true. The situation challenges or shatters the character’s beliefs. They must find out what is true. If you as the writer have never done that yourself, how can you write it? First you must live it and understand the process and then it becomes useful to you as writer. Aside from talent, aside from skill, all you have to offer as a writer is who you are as a person and your own strengths and weaknesses as that person will become your strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

2 thoughts on ““Write What is True””

  1. Bravo, John Ostrander. And I hope your words see more light than mine did during my short term teaching at UCLA when I tried to convince my students that they “Must write to tell a story and not sell a story.”
    Imagine sitting in front of 20 wannabe writers asking one another, “Whad’id he just say? WRITE TA TELL A STORY AND NOT SELL A STORY.
    What the f…’s he talkin’ about?!” gs

  2. Excellent advice. I’ll add another baby step–once you’ve discovered your characters’ truths, don’t stray from them. This is really tempting when the plot goes one way and the character goes another. Plot influences character influences plot and so on, but denying his/her truth to make the plot work is basically sticking a knife in the character’s back. At that point the audience will stop buying what you’re selling. Or telling, according to gs.

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