Some stories have been told so many times that they become a genre with rules: when a particular thing happens, the character reacts a particular way. But what if those rules are wrong? For some stories, it’s not enough to tell the truth. You must also consciously distinguish the facts from the fiction that your readers expect. What hangs in the balance is often the humanity of the people you’re writing about.
The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez is telling this kind of story in his book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. The essays were originally published as dispatches in the Salvadoran online newspaper, El Faro, and collected in an edition published first in Mexico and now, in English, by Verso Books. The original title in Spanish—Los migrantes que no importan (The Migrants Who Don’t Matter)—gives a sense for what is as stake in the essays. You can read the first chapter at Dazed.
How the Story Works
Martínez tells stories about many migrants, and, taken as a summary with only names and basic events, some of these stories begin to sound like a certain kind of fiction. For instance, Martínez interviews three Salvadoran brothers traveling to the U.S. to escape gang violence. The youngest brother is Pitbull, a 17-year-old who watched his friend Juan Carlos get shot in broad daylight. The next day, he found and put on a police uniform and “went to downtown Chalchuapa looking for the murderer’s accomplice who had gotten away. All day he searched through alleyways and makeshift street shops.” He eventually identified the killers to the police, but the killers recognized him, too, and soon threats were made against his life. If you’ve watched any gang movies, you may have an expectation for what comes next, but this is the point where fact and fiction part ways, as Martínez explains:
If he were a character in a movie, of course, Pitbull would have snooped around, hit up his barrio contacts, tried to put a name to the assassins, maybe put on the police uniform again.
But Pitbull lives in the real world. He ’s just an eighteen-year-old kid steeped in the violence of one of the most dangerous countries on the continent.
Once Martínez establishes that this story will depart from the usual story line, he explains why this departure matters:
What’s more, not even the police reports contain many details. When they killed Juan Carlos—January or February, he doesn’t exactly remember – nine other men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five were killed, just in Chalchuapa. And Pitbull doesn’t even know if Juan Carlos was his friend’s real name.
“That’s what he called himself,” Pitbull says. “But he was in a gang and he had problems in some of the other barrios. I heard people call him a lot of different names.”
William, José, Miguel, Carlos, Ronal, Unidentified, any of these could have been Juan Carlos. All of these young men were murdered in Chalchuapa in the same month. And even if one were to know the facts of the murder, I have a hunch that, like the facts of so many other migrant murder cases, the details would be so scarce they’d simply disappear. Evaporate. It’d be as if nothing had ever happened.
The risk of turning “true” stories into a fictional genre is that the real people involved are turned into stock characters. When Martínez distinguishes fact from fiction, then, he is, in a way, giving life to the people in his stories.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s try to distinguish fact from fiction, using the passage from Óscar Martínez’s The Beast as a model. This exercise may be most useful as a tool for revision:
- Boil a character and story down to a tagline. To do this, choose a character and story (or person and essay) you’ve created and simplify everything about them. What is the quickest version you could tell someone. For help, think of movie posters. They use simple images that show you the essence of the main character and a phrase or short sentence to state the stakes. For instance, the new movie Draft Day has a poster that shows Kevin Costner in a suit and holding a football in front of signs for the NFL draft. The tagline is “The Greatest Victories Don’t Always Happen on the Field.”
- State the movie version. Imagine if your character and tagline were put in the hands of a movie producer hoping for a blockbuster—in other words, someone who will likely hew to convention. How would that person pitch your story, especially the conflict? Try to write the pitch as a series of actions in a single sentence. Here’s how Martínez does it: “If he were a character in a movie, of course, Pitbull would have snooped around, hit up his barrio contacts, tried to put a name to the assassins, maybe put on the police uniform again.”
- Explain how your character lives in the real world. Keep the explanation short and focused on the nature of the world and how it’s different from the world of movies. You’re basically tweaking the tagline you wrote earlier. Martínez started with barrio contacts and turned them into this: “He ’s just an eighteen-year-old kid steeped in the violence of one of the most dangerous countries on the continent.” How can you sum up your tagline so that it’s not about a character’s individual action but, instead, about the larger forces that operate around that character.
- Show how the world impacts the character(s). What choices do the characters make in reaction to the world you’ve just described? In Martínez’s essay, Juan Carlos created aliases to avoid the pockets of violence all around him. These aliases have the effect of making him hard to officially identify by the authorities—or even by the people closest to him. As a result, when he’s found murdered, no one can say for certain who he is. His identify has been spread so thin that he’s rendered almost invisible. Think about the choices your characters make. What are the consequences of these simple, necessary decisions? What impact do they have later on? Or, how do these choices affect the character’s actions once he/she is dropped into the plot or story you’re writing about?
This exercise should work for both fiction and nonfiction. In both, you’re keeping in mind the readers’ expectations about your story due to the previous way it’s been told.