Saturday, November 19, 2011

Fact In Fiction

Recently someone criticized one of my favorite historical fiction writers for not sticking with the facts in a novel.

Obviously the critic didn’t understand the primary function of a novel is to entertain.

In a historical novel, the writer has an obligation to make the reader accept his setting and characters as appropriate to the period. That doesn’t prevent a writer from twisting facts to suit a creative purpose.

As Alistair MacLean so aptly put it, “The key to the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of readers is a good mixture of real things and things fictional.” The formula seemed to work well for him in 28 novels, many of which were made into films.

There is a vast difference between fiction and fact. Webster defines the former as “the act of feigning or inventing; a literary production of the imagination.” And fact is clearly designated as “reality; event; truth.”

Naturally the two definitions are often confused.

Shakespeare’s dramas, for instance, are fiction. Yet generations of readers and playgoers have mistakenly accepted them as factual portrayals of persons and events. Clearly the evidence shows Shakespeare mined historical accounts for plots but doctored them with his imagination and personal impressions. That’s what we call creativity.

If it’s history you seek, then read a historian.

Then again, as Thackeray reminds us, “Fiction carries a greater amount of truth in solution than the volume which purports to be all true.” I’ll wager more people who were bored by the subject in their school days have been brought to love history through fiction than by any other means.

18 comments:

  1. Hi John - while I agree with you about making the setting and characters appropriate to the period, I'm less happy with historical authors twisting the facts about actual events or characters, unless they are writing a 'What if?' type of story. But, being an historian by profession, maybe I'm biased in favour of historical events and people being shown accurately, and not misrepresented.

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  2. I agree with Paula, and I'm both a novelist and a historian by degree and profession. I am willing to exercise creativity and inventiveness out the wazoo if there is no documented evidence of what happened. But to change the known facts for the sake of a a "good story" is unfair, both to the real people whose lives you may slander and to the reader, who ought to be able to trust the author not to tell outright lies.

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  3. All good points. Historical fiction works best when liberties are taken not with actual historical figures, but with fictional characters inserted into historical situations. For example, when Caleb Carr introduces Charles Darrow in The Alienist, Darrow behaves as the historical Darrow would. But the other characters are products of Carr's imagination.

    William Doonan
    www.williamdoonan.com

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  4. I think that it's okay to embellish the personality, or add things that didn't happen to things that did. But I don't think that facts should be changed for the sake of fiction.

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  5. I once created a scrolling screen saver that said "A writer reinvents the truth." I have tried to teach former policemen how to take "Just the facts" and make them readable fiction.

    However, as a lover of historical fiction, I'm always hoping the author is giving me facts. I have no problem with creative license to interpret the material to make a good story.

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  6. If a book is based on historical facts, then I want the facts. However, it's the "in between the facts" that an author can recreate. I hope that makes sense. It's true that John Wilkes Booth assasinated President Lincoln. But what might the President and Mrs. Lincoln have talked about before the performance? What small tidbits could be added to make the reader care more about the characters? Just don't change the known facts. And let the reader know you've added your own input to the story.

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  7. Matthew Arnold, Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, Napoleon, Voltaire and countless others argue history is not fact, but what we choose to believe of events we have not witnessed.
    Not saying I totally agree, but...

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  8. A historical novel can be described as a novel set in a period of history which, among other things, gives the “feel”, spirit, and social conditions of the time. To be worthwhile, it should portray that period with some degree of accuracy. Still, that gives the author a lot of freedom. However, the author also has a responsibility to the reader. So actual facts of history should not be twisted to far as to break them. We all know of current leaders who claim that the holocaust did not occur. Authors Dan Brown and Steve Berry each add author notes to explain some of the parts that are consistent with the history. But, Berry also points out certain aspects of the novel that have no historical backing – or are of questionable historical accuracy. When Brown says A, B, and C are actual facts, but does not mention that D and E are not facts, the reader hears that this book is based on fact. There is a tendency to believe the entire book is factual. In this respect, Berry is fairer with the reader.

    So, basically, I’m saying: be fair with the reader.

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  9. Bernard Cornwell often adds such historical afterwords, too, which I think is an excellent practice.

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  10. I have no trouble with good writing, whether historically based or historically based with a twist. Interesting that some argue accuracy in a work of fiction; how do we even know the historians were accurate? We're taking the recorded words of dead men who may have been biased. Moreover, when I want to study history, I read history books. CA

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  11. Here, here John...thank you for the clarity even though there are those who still confuse fact with fiction; especially historical fiction. Augie

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  12. Excellent post, John.
    I agree with most of the comments when it is the twisting of the unknown facts between the known ones that bring flavor to a historical novel. Not being a historian myself I was impressed with Ken Follett Pillars of the Earth and have read reviews that was pretty accurate.

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  13. Excellent post, John I really agree with you.
    Philippa Gregory sells tons of books but she does twist the facts.

    I studied history but would not class myself as an historian, I enjoy history and reading fact and fiction but I can differentiate between them.

    Keep up the good work, John.

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  14. John,
    I agree that, if you want facts, you should read a history book. Fact is fact and fiction is fiction. That's why novels have a disclaimer in the front of the book.

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  15. One of my editors suggested I confirm that a full moon actually occured on a specific date in history that I had mentioned in my novel. Hmmmm...I never did. Mostly because I was terrified I'd find out there WAS one. I often feel my characters are dictating their stories to me which makes me afraid I'm a tad crazy. Too many times research has proven the stuff they've told me is based largely on facts which I was unaware I knew. If this eerie situation were to extend to include something as incidental as the phases of the moon, I'd definitly need to double the diazepam.

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  16. I have discovered just how common it is for people to believe whatever they see in print. While researching for my next novel I found a website on the subject I was researching that had forums for discussion. I posted a note that I was writing a novel and wanted some information on this topic. One person gave several titles of novels that she suggested I read. Thanks, but I generally don't consult novels when researching. (Unless, of course, it was novels or authors that I was researching.)
    I guess we just have to be aware that some people will think we're telling the truth and that others expect us to and a few will actually spend hours just to prove that we aren't.

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  17. Hey, I write south Texas western fiction. If I don't get the locales or dates right, somebody climbs all over me. Happily, I was able to get away with quite a distortion of the facts in my recent novel about the Alamo. No severe criticism, at least not yet.

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  18. Dac, did you get away with this distortion because people don't know the facts about the Alamo? Or are there other reasons?

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