The Truth in Fiction
by Nathan Barra
For many, college is the first opportunity for true independence in a young adult’s life. You see, up until that point, I had focused on preparing myself for a highly technical education and career. However, now that I was in one of the best engineering schools in the country, I decided that I wanted to do something completely different, just for the joy of the activity and not for any personal gain. To this end, I spent three and a half years on stage performing live improvised comedy. Improv practices and shows were bastions of silliness and joy in an otherwise demanding curriculum, but they also taught me more about how to tell stories than anything that has come before or since. Despite going to an engineering school with a small liberal arts program, university was when I learned the most about my writer’s craft.
"You see Nathan,” one of my mentors in the troupe once told me, “there is a truth in comedy. People laugh because a joke makes them uncomfortable, makes them look at something in a new way, or because they appreciate the irony of a situation. In all these cases, the line you're delivering must ring true in order to get the best laugh." Though he was trying to improve my stagecraft, I have found that the validity of the maxim extends beyond the stage and onto the page. We find meaning in stories because they ring true to our lives and experience. We put our reader in impossible situations and rely on suspension of disbelief to carry the day. Yet, despite the killer robots, wizard battles, and intergalactic warfare, our readers will believe in our words and world if and only if the characters, their motivations, and decisions ring with a truth they can recognize.
When I was invited to submit to the One Horn to Rule Them All anthology, I struggled with several story concepts. They were all interesting and technically sound, but none felt true to me. However, several weeks before the anthology’s deadline, I attended Phoenix ComicCon. One of my favorite parts of conventions, especially ComicCons, is the cosplay. I am very passionate about stories, after all. To see characters from my favorite works step off the page and walk into the real world is thrilling.
During the long drive home from Phoenix, Arizona to West Texas, I had plenty of time to think about the convention and realized that I could take the idea of cosplay one step further. What would it take to make a cosplay so real that it crossed into reality? What if some magic existed that would bring the imagination to life? How would this power be used and abused? For me, it seemed pretty obvious that at some point, someone would make themselves into a superhero. That was the central truth, the catalyst I needed to make the rest of the story ideas I had brewing come together and fall into balance to become The Girl with the Artist’s Eyes.
From that initial concept, I started looking for other truths. For a cosplay to standout to a veteran ComicCon attendee, it had to be either fantastic or horrible. In this truth, I found the comedy I used to infuse Walter Sams’ heroic costume. Also, from my observations at conventions, cosplayers are just as fond of villains as they of are of heroes. From this truth, I found conflict and one of the dramatic twists my beta readers loved best. Finally, I needed to balance the fantastic ideality and antics of Walter Sams with a second main character. I turned to another truth; Life is hard, and it is our struggles that not only bring value to our experiences, but also reveal to us what it is that we value most. From this seed, I created the character that eventually became Catalina.
Mixing these pieces together and balancing their elements against each other, I created the main themes of my piece: good versus evil, the discrepancy between intent and reality, and the necessity of the choices we make to shape our world and the obligation they incur. Looking at these central concepts, you can see that they are based in solid truth, as almost any theme is. By grounding my story in truth, I allow my reader to accept the fantastic as a matter of course.
In the end, I'm very proud of the work I did with the story. It has taken its place in the One Horn to Rule Them All anthology next to professional and semi-pro authors I respect and admire. What makes this anthology even more special is the story behind the herd of purple unicorns. You see, I have been blessed enough in my career to be able to afford conventions like the Superstars Writing Seminar. It has been one of the most professionally rewarding experiences I have had, and has given me the opportunity to build a fiercely loyal and supportive tribe of fellow writers. However, because the seminar attracts big name writers and editors to teach, though fairly priced, the cost of attendance is out of the reach of some writers. Recognizing this, what started as a tongue-in-cheek example at last year’s seminar has turned into a charity project with the full support of the 19 authors and the publisher of the anthology. Early on in the project, the writers and publishers of the One Horn to Rule Them All anthology decided to channel all the profits from the sale of the anthology to a scholarship fund set aside for writers who would benefit from the seminar but cannot afford to go.
Most people don't expect highly technical types like myself to have hobbies like improv or writing novels. However, I find it perfectly suiting. You see, engineers are trained to take large complex situations, situations where the overwhelming quantity of details obscure the truth of a matter, and break everything down into simpler, more manageable parts. When constructing a story, there is so much more involved than just punctuation and grammar. Dozens of details need to be carefully orchestrated in order for a story to come together with the elegant precision needed to achieve maximum emotional effect. It’s like engineering in reverse; instead of deconstructing situations, I put them together and ensure that everything is balanced. At the core of this balance is an essential maxim: storytellers tell lies to our readers to reveal important truths. Without that core of meaning, the story falls flat, but with it, something truly magical can happen.
The Girl with the Artists Eyes is a story about a man who finds an ancient artifact which he uses to turn himself into a superhero in order to save Stan Lee from a crowd sourced ransom scheme, and the lengths to which Catalina, an innocent con staffer, must go to manage his incompetence and truly save the day. For more details on this story and other stories in the anthology, see www.NathanBarra.com/books.
Though Nathan Barra is an engineer by profession, training and temperament, he is a storyteller by nature and at heart. Fascinated with the byplay of magic and technology, Nathan is drawn to urban fantasy and soft science fiction in both his reading and writing. He has been known, however, to wander off into other genres for “funzies.” He is an active blogger, not only on his own site, NathanBarra.com, but also with a group blog called the Fictorians (www.Fictorians.com). Nathan is always up for a good conversation, so please drop him a line through his contact page, or write on his Facebook wall (www.facebook.com/WriterNathanBarra).