Truth in Fiction, Why It Really Doesn’t Matter

Sitting around at the hair salon, reading a copy of Field & Stream . . . sure, we know what you’re thinking, but you are oh so wrong. Deal with it.

Anyway, back to Field & Stream, they had a great 8-paragraph essay by Bill Heavey in the back of their August issue. It’s called Bow Crazy: My Daughter’s New Obsession.  It’s a must read for fiction writers because it speaks directly to the question of truthiness in fiction.

It’s clear from the article that the author of Hunger Games, while a great writer, knows nothing of hunting or the outdoors.  No-thing.

Something many creative writing instructors tell their students is “write what you know.” But when you write fiction, it means you’re making it up. Ok, but  you still want to fact check, right? The answer to that is maybe.

In the writing world you can fact check and perfect all you like. It won’t necessarily make your book better, help your book sell better, or  make your book more attractive to your target (or any) audience.

Hunger Games wasn’t written for hunters, or even the children thereof. The author didn’t care about . . . well, any sort of facts about wildlife, hunting with a bow (despite this is the lead character’s weapon) or even about the natural world in general. None of this hurts sales.

Sure experienced hunters, bowpersons, and nature lovers all laughed. But readers? Nope, they couldn’t care less. They suspended their disbelief, or, like the author, were so clueless about the natural world and living in it that they didn’t have to suspend their disbelief because they had no general or even rudimentary knowledge base to crib off.

But it’s not simply children’s books where truthiness comes into play. Adult fiction benefits from truthiness too. Anyone remember the Tony Scott movie Crimson Tide? All about launching nuclear warheads from submarines. They didn’t show people the actual “how to” because that’s a state secret. It wouldn’t have helped the storyline to use the facts anyway.  Because . . . it’s a story!

If you are going to write about something that’s general knowledge, the color of the sky, how to drive a car . . .  stick to the truth. If you’re going to write about something not everyone in your culture is familiar with, it’s ok to get creative. Just keep it plausible.

People know rabbits exist, come in a couple of colors, and can be eaten. Beyond that most modern people don’t know anything about rabbits. Ask someone the difference between a rabbit and a hare  or what rabbits eat? When they breed or do they hibernate? Oh boy!

When you sit down to write about something, ask yourself, what do my general readers know about this? Then ask yourself if putting the 100% accurate truth out there helps your story?

It’s not laziness. It’s finding the balance between creating an enjoyable read and making a textbook.

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Published in: on September 12, 2012 at 12:27 PM  Leave a Comment  
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