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Facts in Fiction
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
April 4, 2013
I certainly want accuracy to matter, even in fiction. In some ways I'm an idealist. But just because I want something to be true does not make it so. And lately I feel as if I've been encountering more and more fiction with facts that are just plain wrong. For example, the movie Angels and Demons, based on Dan Brown's book of the same name, is apparently quite loose with respect to its presentation of reality. A number of people have voiced their complaints on the radio: Evidently they have tried to use the directions in his book to get around Rome, and they have failed, because his directions don't work. As I'm less familiar with Rome, these particular inaccuracies don't offend me. However, I have been often to CERN (Europe's nuclear research facility on the border of France and Switzerland) and I laughed at his version of the place. Brown describes buildings which simply don't exist, either in size or style.
So, do facts matter in fiction? After all, fiction is made up, so why bother?
Let's consider some of the reasons why an author might invent facts for his or her piece of fiction.
Accidents and Mistakes
First, the author makes a mistake. A novel is an enormous undertaking, and despite the best intentions, an author may not get everything right. Jane Austen, who strived hard for accuracy, nevertheless has a passage in Emma where an apple tree blooms completely out of season. Austen's farmer-brother, Edward Knight, found the problem after the novel had already been printed, but Austen did not seem to consider the error worth correcting, for she left the late-blooming tree in a later edition.
Second, it's possible that he or she is simply too lazy to do the research. I think this happens in some John Grisham novels. In his novel The Broker Grisham wrote that he doesn't bother to do research for technical aspects, excusing himself with the words, "It's all fiction, folks" -- an apology in advance for his inaccuracies when it came to satellites and espionage. Actually, for this novel Grisham did perform significant research in Italy, but had not extended it to Switzerland. Hence the protagonist uses Euros in a country that uses Swiss Francs.
Third, it's possible that the research is too obscure and it does not occur to the author to even ask the question -- which falls somewhere between making a mistake and being lazy. For example, in Grisham's The Broker the main character gets out at a particular square in Zurich, Switzerland, and muses to himself that nothing has changed since the last time he was there, eight years earlier, in 1998. Well, as someone who used to commute through that particular square, I can say categorically that everything had changed, for there was major reconstruction. Yet this was an obscure point that would be difficult for an author to know.
Often the author knows what the truth is, and chooses to tell something different anyway. In these cases -- and they happen all the time -- the author is not making a mistake, but a deliberate, artistic decision. The reasons for this are many; here are a few:
The author feels the information will confuse the readers. Especially when writing historical fiction, where real people played real roles, there's a dilemma in how much information to convey. A novel is but a model of the real world; it can't have as many parts. So, characters may double up on roles. Time may be compressed. Names may be simplified.
The author is having fun. In the movie and book Forrest Gump and in HBO's miniseries Rome, the creators have fun inserting their characters into important events -- and making them partly responsible for them. Forrest Gump becomes the inspiration for the smiley face; Titus Pullo is allegedly the "real" father of Cleopatra's son, Caesarion. Hopefully the audience is aware that these are fictional twists and appreciates the jokes.
The author wants to please readers. Some audiences demand a hopeful, happy ending. Philippa Gregory somehow manages to make The Constant Princess -- the story of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife, whose real life ended in despair and loneliness as her husband of many years rejected and divorced her -- positive, almost optimistic, at the end. Perhaps she wanted this or perhaps it was demanded by her publishers. So, often facts are rearranged or reinterpreted to make them more acceptable to readers.
The author is presenting an alternative. In some cases one version of events is well known, but the author wants to present a what-if alternative. This could be fantasy or science fiction. Readers suspend belief, for example, that one can travel through a black hole without being crushed. Or perhaps the author is presenting a different take on events, or even deliberately courting controversy.
Selling The Truth
The truth -- or claiming that something is the truth -- automatically gives a book or movie more sales potential. I admit that whenever I hear or read the words, "Based on a true story," I am more intrigued. I'm usually curious, too, as to how much is true and how much is not. The truth sells! If you have any doubts, do some research and you'll see that the market for nonfiction books is larger than the market for novels.
But what if it isn't true?
People can become indignant when something is sold as the truth but isn't. Oprah Winfrey was extremely upset when she learned that James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, a book she had promoted on her show, had sections that were exaggerated or even fabricated. She has since stated that she overreacted. We've had other cases, too, where some enterprising authors have tried to milk the holocaust. Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years was written by a woman who claimed to have survived the holocaust by living with wolves. Misha Defonesca, the author, is not even Jewish, yet this book became an international bestseller, translated into 18 languages, before it was discovered to be a hoax. Recently, Herman Rosenblat's Angel at the Fence (another hoodwinking of Oprah Winfrey) turned out to be fabricated, too -- although in this case the author was at least a Jew who had been in a German concentration camp. Angel at the Fence was canceled by the publisher -- but it's still being made into a movie.
So there is some retribution in the publishing world when authors claim to tell the truth while lying. But are there punishments for the authors who incorporate falsehoods and inaccuracies in their fiction?
What the Readers Want: Personal Choices
I'd like to believe that yes, getting facts right matters, but I reluctantly admit that it isn't always so. In some cases a reader's reading experience is spoiled by what seems like an egregious mistake by an author. Instead of continuing to enjoy the story, the reader is indignantly thinking, "It isn't so! I know it isn't so!" And sometimes that reader will fling the book away in disgust. But many other times, the reader either doesn't notice the mistake or doesn't care. As many bestselling novels contain mistakes, I have to assume that many readers don't care that much.
Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm too pessimistic.
Maybe the books that don't reach the market are those with even more mistakes in them. There are plenty of successful authors who take their research seriously. James Michener. Herman Wouk. Colleen McCullough. They are not infallible, but they certainly do their homework. I respect these authors because of it.
But respecting authors for their research doesn't always mean being entertained by them...
On the other hand, facts don't always conflict with making a novel entertaining. So, why not use well-researched facts whenever possible, to deepen the reading experience? That's my preference, and what I strive for in my own writing. So I went to visit Mount Spil in Turkey, and ended up correcting an entry in Wikipedia.
I generally attempt to fill my columns with advice and suggestions and analysis about writing. Although I've included some analysis this month, I've also been a little philosophical. And I'd also love to hear what the readers of this column think: do you want accuracy in the fiction that you read? Does it matter to you or not? If you have ideas on this, please write to me at tapestryofbronze at yahoo dot com.
Until next time -- keep writing.
A version of this article appeared at the Coffeehouse for Writer's Fiction Fix.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.