Fiction Is Truth Serum

by James Scott Bell

Driving a car in Los Angeles offers great insight into human nature.

Some years ago, along a stretch of the freeway we Angelenos call The 101 (not “one-hundred-and-one” but “one-oh-one,” thank you very much) I was being harassed by the car in back of me. I had just completed what is known in driving school as a lane change. As I recall I indicated my impending move by way of the turn signal, though how much notice I gave the gentleman in the next lane I cannot remember with precision.

Quite apparently, however, he took umbrage at my action and began honking his horn, flashing his lights, and declaring his displeasure with a single, upraised digit.

I could see how red his face was via my rear view mirror.

Now, what do I do in situations like that? My first urge is to try to think of something that will frustrate the churlish driver even more. But then (I certainly hope) a “better angel of my nature” kicks me in the ribs and I try to let the whole thing pass.

This I did, and started whistling a merry tune.

The fellow behind me, though, was not satisfied. The moment he had an opening he shot over to the lane on our right (without benefit of signal), gunned his automobile, then cut in front of me (again without benefit of signal). He offered me one more look at his middle finger.

Which was when I noticed the bumper sticker on the rear of his car:


Ah, humanity. What a study. And what a lesson for our fiction.

For who are we really? Who are our characters?

We/They are not the masks we wear when things are smooth and tidy. Or perhaps, to put it another way, what we are truly made of is only revealed under pressure.

That’s what great fiction is about—how a character transforms when forced into conflict (I contend that to be great, the conflict must be life or death—death being physical, professional, or psychological/spiritual. This includes thrillers, romance, literary…any genre).

We’re not going to read 200—or even 20—pages about a flirty girl in a big dress trying to land an aristocratic husband. Only the Civil War and the prospect of losing her home is going to show us what Scarlett O’Hara is made of.

Who is Rick Blaine, the reclusive owner of a café and gambling den in the city of Casablanca? It seems he does live his life according to one rule: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” But what happens when the Nazis show up and try to push him around? And then close in on the only woman he has ever loved—and her resistance-hero husband? The whole movie is about forcing Rick to look at himself (as if in a mirror) and figure out who he really is … and, more important, who he must become.

Think of the pressure of the novel as being truth serum for a character.

So who was in back of me in that car? A nice guy advocating for peace in the world who was having a bad day? Or a plaster saint who plays The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” in his apartment even as he flames people with a burner account on Twitter?

The great thing about fiction is that the tests we give our characters, and who they turn out to be because of them, are infinitely variable. (Which is why I imagine my road-rage guy got off the freeway shortly after our encounter, lost control of his vehicle, slammed into a telephone pole, woke up in the hospital with amnesia and later became convinced he was Professor Irwin Corey.)

Here’s an exercise: Ask yourself what bumper sticker your character would place on his car. That’s his mask. That’s what he wants people to think of him. Then ask yourself what action the character can take that demonstrates the opposite of the sentiment. Now, what does that tell you about who the character really is?

Work that complexity into your manuscript.

And please, drive sanely.

54 thoughts on “Fiction Is Truth Serum

  1. Drivers. Exasperating. Especially the ones behind me who like to presume to tell me when it is safe to make a left hand turn. But I digress….

    Love the bumper sticker idea. I’m imagining bumper stickers for the back of my protag’s horse. 😎 I not only think of it as what we’re made of under pressure but in general it highlights the facts that we humans are contradictory souls. And we have a twisted way of justifying what we do, even in the most minor of things. But it makes for good 3D characters when you do it well and still have a character to root for.

    • Great thoughts, BK, about our “contradictory souls” (it’s even biblical).

      And the “twisted way of justifying things” applies not only to our lead characters, but most especially to our “bad guys.” They never think they’re evil; they think they’re right and deserving. A writer should let the villain “make his case” as it were.

  2. Thanks for the reminders of your workshops at Colorado Gold. TKZers, this is great, but you can’t imagine how much better it is in person!
    As for your opening. As someone who grew up in LA, I had to smile.
    The Ten. The 405 (Four Oh Five). And another reason authors should research what the locals call their highways, because calling it Interstate 10, or I-10 will pull a native out of the story. Another note. The default road condition on the 405 is red.
    And now, in addition to my character’s mirror moment, I need a bumper sticker. Or maybe he’s like me and refuses to stick anything onto his car. I know, you’re going to say, “but if he had one, what would it say?”
    And in closing, we moved from LA to Miami. Talk about rude, terrible drivers. LA drivers are a relative treat.

    • I’ll keep that in mind about Florida, Terry. I know there are stark differences vis-a-vis L.A. I once played a round of golf on a Florida muni course and was greeted on one fairway by a giant crocodile, staring at me. Good thing I hadn’t hit near the water hazard.

    • Terry, consider one thing when talking about Miami. Those rude drivers are not Floridians for the most part. Many of a Cuban descent who come North to save their lives, or of Northern descent after selling out of the snow, etc. to move to the Tropics with their Hurricanes, and Tropical Storms. But always remember wherever me live just go by the Boy Scout; ‘Be prepared’

      • Point taken, but when driving in Miami, you deal with Miami drivers, regardless of where they came from. My husband commuted about 20 miles on US 1 (Dixie Highway) and over the causeway to his job on Virginia Key every day. Up until then, he’d complained about traffic and drivers in LA.
        This was a lot of years ago. Then we moved to Orlando, and had to deal with the tourists, especially the Brits who had trouble remembering which side of the road to drive on.
        We live in the boonies now and deer are our biggest traffic issues.

  3. Look, I have a rural recluse who avoids town and doesn’t drive. I’d never give her a bumper sticker. BUT I do know a pastor’s wife who has the obligatory fish sticker on the back of her puckup (aka the ute in Australia). When she waited a bit too long to be served in the rural co-op store, she did a wheel skidding, stone spraying skid out of their car park. (We call that dropping a wheelie, or hanging a donut.)
    I did ask her if she ripped off her fish sticker first. It didn’t go down that well.
    Perhaps there’s money to be made in making magnetic bumper stickers – use them like mood rings, let people know when to hang back and when to pass with a wave.

    • Funny, Jay, and a good reason I don’t have a fish on my car. I’m afraid my humanity will get the better (actually, worse) of me and I’ll do something stupid that will bring disrepute to an entire religion.

      True story: Some years ago, when the phrase “If it feels good, do it” was being endlessly and annoyingly repeated, a pastor pulled up at a stop light behind a car with that exact bumper sticker. So he let his car gently bump the guy. The guy jumps out and comes over and says, “Why’d you do that!?” And the pastor said, “It felt good.”

  4. Funny you should mention bumper stickers — and what they say about the car owner.

    A bumper sticker becomes a huge clue in our new book THE DAMAGE DONE. It reads SISU. (free bookmark to anyone who can tell me what that means without using the Google machine. Louis first sees the word on a woman’s sweatshirt and thinks it’s the initials for a school — South Iowa State University. But later, a priest tells him it’s a finnish word peculiar only to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and it means “great tenacity.” (which you must have if you live anywhere in the U.P.)

    But the word can have two sides: positive sitsu and bad sitsu. Which comes to play in the entire plot as he encounters people with both kinds.

    When I found “sitsu” in my research it was one of those gift from the gods, a serenpiditious lightening bolt that set the plot on its true course.

    I now have a SITSU bumper sticker. Depending on if I have had my morning coffee or not, the driver behind me will just have to figure it out and deal with me.

  5. I still like the bumper sticker of the American Indian Movement in the 1970s:

    AMERICA–love it, or give it back.

  6. Thanks for mentioning this simple but deep approach. It’s my next step. A truth that I knew but forgot.

    I lived in a very conservative city in Ohio. The famous phrases were:
    1) “I don’t know how you were raised, but I would never…” and then they did.
    2) “ i’m Not the kind of person who would…” and then they would.

    Though that was one city, the truth is universal: we don’t know ourselves. And that’s the point of story. We need to.

  7. Good blog, Jim. Driving styles can reveal the inner person. As a Florida driver, I’ve have some terrifying encounters on the highways, especially with impatient drivers in expensive cars. My husband and I have a running debate on which drivers are ruder — people behind the wheels of Mercedes or BMWs.

    • I’m getting nervous about visiting Florida now. My friend calls your state “God’s waiting room.”

      I’m also reminded of Dave Berry’s admonition: “The best time to visit Disney World is 1965.”

  8. Thanks for another great writing lesson. Like Sue, I’m impressed with how you can turn almost anything into food for thought on the subject of writing.

    Bumper stickers, the masks we wear, the filters we speak through, the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the way we walk, the places we go – all are pieces of who we want to be (or try to be). Isn’t the mirror moment the point at which we see who we really are (behind that complex façade), and who we really want to be? And what it will take to make that transition.

    My protag in my WIP – an adolescent coming of age and learning the responsibilities that he will now be aware of – doesn’t drive yet. But he would put the following bumper stick on his car, if he had one: “Oh for the age if innocence” – with innocence lined out and followed by – “ignorance.”

    Thanks for another great post.

    • I like that intrigue about your protag, Steve.

      And speaking of masks, the biggest one of all now is social media, right? Reminds me of Neal Gabler’s thought-provoking book, Life, The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. “The story of how our bottomless appetite for novelty, gossip, and melodrama has turned everything—news, politics, religion, high culture—into one vast public entertainment.” (And makes us operate as if we are the “stars” of our own “movie.”)

      • Shouldn’t we be the star of our own movie?

        Granted the assumption someone else would want to see the movie …

        Its like memoir writers, writing it is fine, but shouldn’t something interesting, different or unique have happened in your life?

        • As I recall Gabler’s thesis is that we’re avoiding reality. Movies are not life, but we’re living life as if it’s a movie. And in thinking were a “star” in a movie, we’re in danger of becoming divas in life.

          And among memoirists, the temptation to make things up (as in the James Frey case) is always present.

  9. Here in Orlando, I-4 East runs north and I-4 West runs south. I hear that confuses people. Don’t ask us for directions using highway numbers. 441 is Orange Blossom Trail, OBT to locals. 408 is the East/West. The Greenway might be 417, I’m not sure.

    I have two magnetic bumper stickers on my car. One says “Life is short – play with your dog.” The other one says “Proud parent of a U.S. Marine.”

    My main character is a doctor and very circumspect. She doesn’t do bumper stickers. But her husband, the fighter pilot turned history teacher, would definitely have “Live Free or Die” on his.

  10. Ah, bumper stickers. When I had a 75 mile commute, I wrote tons of them in my mind as a coping mechanism. A few of my favorites:

    I brake for red lights.

    If you wish to reserve this road for your own personal use, you must call 24 hours in advance.

    I have the legal right to drive the speed limit.

    Honking and flashing your lights at me will not induce me to pull into an intersection on a red light.

    I love the idea of a bumper sticker for a character. You have a way of taking complicated writing techniques and paring them down to laymen’s terms, easy to understand and apply. Thank you.

    Reminds me of the acronym: K.I.S.S. Whenever I got too technical in answering questions about frames and lenses (I was an Optician), my boss blew kisses at me behind the patient’s back.

  11. For my character Rachel Shorter her sticker would say. Work is my life.

    For my undercover CIA agent married to an arms dealer maybe Mommy – the best job title.@+a

  12. I rarely comment here, mostly because I feel I don’t have anything pithy to contribute. But I’m enjoying this discussion.
    I don’t drive anymore (vision issues) but as a passenger with my daughter behind the wheel, a driver ahead of us made a sudden right turn without signaling. My daughter quipped: “Must be out of blinker fluid.” Cracked me up.
    On another note, we can learn a lot from vanity license plates.
    One day, while still living in Las Vegas, on my commute home, a red Jaguar, driven by a blonde woman, pulled up beside me at a stoplight at a busy intersection. When the light changed, she shot ahead of me and I caught her vanity plate. It read: WAS-HIS.
    Yep, there’s a story there.

  13. True story, I swear.
    This happened in Kennesaw, GA. I was with a friend of mine driving to the local 7-11 for ice. When we left the store we stopped at a light, and my friend’s car stalled. Naturally, the second the light turned green, the guy behind us began leaning on his horn. This went on for about a minute while my friend tried to get the car started again. Finally, my friend got out of the car and walked back to the car behind us. They exchanged some words and my friend got back in the car. I asked what he said to the guy. My friend answered, ‘I told him I would set in his car and honk if he would come up here and get my car started.’
    The car started immediately after that, it must have been flooded and the wait allowed it to clear itself. We had a good laugh about driving back to his house.

  14. Jim, this is addictive – and what a great idea! This is something I will continue to do.

    For my other project I’m working on – Harley is a charter boat captain. Didn’t even have to think about his – “I’d rather be fishing.”

    If you’d like a dog, we have three 🙂

  15. Great post. It reminded me of a time (long ago) when I was in the car with my mother, and we were stopped at a traffic light. The car in front of us had a bumper sticker on it that said “Honk if You Love Jesus,” along with a few other Christian bumper stickers. Mom, a Lutheran Sunday School teacher, did a couple of short, soft honks. I never knew what road rage was until that day. The driver, a scary-looking dude, got out of his car and charged toward us, shaking his fists and shouting expletives to the point where I was convinced that he must’ve stolen the car (and that he was a few nuts shy of a fruitcake). However, that experience inspired a satire piece that I wrote for a free writing assignment in a high school English class called The Driver’s Handbook (still have it tucked away somewhere), where I came up with names and descriptions for the various types of drivers that could be seen on the road. Fun stuff.

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