Who remembers Aaron Neville’s song “Tell It Like It Is?” Most of us can probably sing it—at least the first line. Set to that iconic tune, the words are lodged in our memories forever.
The phrase “tell it like it is” originated in the African American community in the 1940s and 1950s. It meant to come clean, to tell the truth. In the 1960s it became a byword for confronting the realities of race in America. From there, politicians of both political parties picked it up as a slogan referring to blunt, hard truths most people don’t want to hear but should.
In fiction, telling it like it is means translating real life onto the page in a way readers will recognize, relate to, and understand. Even in fantasy and speculative fiction, the characters (human and otherwise) have strengths and flaws, needs and goals, wishes and desires—like we all do.
Writers should tell the truth, even when it’s not pleasant or convenient. Books like Grapes of Wrath and To Kill A Mockingbird changed our thinking and our culture.
I believe we need diversity of thought and experience. And readers deserve choices—Tana French’s gritty Dublin Murder Squad; the eccentricities of Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit; Miss Read’s gentle tales from Thrush Green; J. K. Rowling’s Gryffindor and C. S. Lewis’s Narnia.
Sometimes in fiction, however, real = raw: deeply flawed characters, speaking words we shield from our children, ending in partial resolutions and a hopeless future.
Yes, life is like that. But not always.
Yesterday I talked about people-watching in the Orlando airport. Two scenes stick with me.
The first involved a clearly irritated man who bullied and swore his way through the security check. When he had to go through the scanner twice because he’d neglected to remove the change from his pockets and then was “randomly chosen” for a pat-down, he lost it. I think he was lucky not to be arrested.
The second happened at the Food Court. Six or seven people, perhaps a family, met up after getting their meals at different vendors. One was a young Down Syndrome man in his twenties who proceeded to give every person in his group an enthusiastic hug. I watched as each embraced the young man as if they’d been apart for months. I was deeply touched by their love.
Anger and love. Irritability and patience. Cruelty and mercy. Despair and hope. Truth and lies.
All are real. All tell it like it is.
My favorite novels admit the whole range of human emotions and experience. That’s what I try to write as well because life is like that. Endings aren’t always happy, but sometimes they are.
What do you admire in fiction?