The tricky art of mixing fact and fiction

Silk’s Post #124 — What do writers of historical novels and writers of modern, ripped-from-the-headlines stories have in common? Not much, you might think. But, surprisingly, two books whose story worlds may be separated by oceans of space and centuries of time often share a unique challenge – and it’s a big one.

Historical novelists must accurately, or at least believably, write about the no-longer-observable past. Depending on how far back in time the novel is set, the story world may be entirely alien to the author and reader, requiring as much imagination to envision as a science fiction setting on another planet. But at least history is documented. All it takes is research – albeit sometimes a lot of laborious research – to recreate the story world.

Writers of ripped-from-the-headlines novels have the advantage of writing about a world in which they actually live – or at least can visit in person, research through contemporaneous reporting, and learn about through interviews with living people. This can still take a lot of time and effort, but it’s a very different exercise.

Here’s where the writers in these two different genres find themselves in exactly the same boat: their stories are set in real places, at real times, referencing real events, where real people play roles side-by-side with fictional characters.

The happy part: the writers can find out all the facts that make their story worlds “real” through research and/or direct experience.

The scary part: so can everyone else.

In other words, writing that mixes the imaginary with the actual will be checked. Whether it’s religious scholars debunking the authenticity of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code historical religious references, or military spook experts nitpicking Tom Clancy’s gizmo-laden weaponry and black-ops tactics, stories that deeply depend on a framework of real-world fact to support their fictional narrative and characters must tread a fine line.

a-million-little-piecesThe proportion of reality to fiction is probably the first deliberate decision that must be made. The spectrum is wide. On the literal end of the scale is the newly-named genre “creative non-fiction,” which tells a “true” story but tinkers with inconvenient facts for dramatic purposes. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, an Oprah Book Club selection, was famously slammed for being a memoire with undeclared fictional elements. More recently, the Oscar-nominated film Selma, which chronicles the recent (and still sensitive) history of minority voting rights, upset some critics when its narrative strayed from the true sequence of events.

argoAnother Oscar-winning “ripped-from-the-headlines” film, Argo, which was written for the screen, chose a strongly America-centric point of view to tell the story of the 1979 Tehran hostage crisis. The film has been widely criticized for historical inaccuracies, and for downplaying or misrepresenting the roles of the Canadian, British, and New Zealand embassies (the freeing of the American hostages after 444 days in captivity was called “the Canadian Caper” in the media at the time, as well as in a 1981 TV-movie). Not surprisingly, Argo was banned in Iran, where it was reviled as “the hoax of Hollywood”. Subsequent to Argo’s release in 2012, a Canadian documentary, Our Man in Tehran, was produced to “set the record straight.” Thus, while Argo was billed as a true-to-life dramatization, there are a lot of folks who would put it in the “creative non-fiction” category.

But creative non-fiction tells stories of actual people and events – in a more dramatic (and perhaps entertaining) narrative style than straight documentaries. What about placing fictional characters into a historic or contemporary context, and telling their made-up personal stories alongside the real-life stories of actual people and events?

There’s a huge range of fiction-to-fact mixes possible. And this is where it all gets murky.

In part, the choice depends on whether you’re using the real-life context and events mainly to tell the story of a fictional protagonist – or whether the aim is to faithfully tell the story of the real-life events by using a fictional protagonist to be our “eyes”. In the first case, the real people and events are background, while the story of the fictional protagonist is foreground; the protagonist’s point of view is personal, and may or may not be accurate. In the second case, you’re counting on the fictional character to be a reliable narrator, and there’s probably more need to demarcate the fact from the fiction: some things did happen, in exactly the way described, while other things did not happen, but realistically could have.

wolf-hallOr, you could just say the hell with it, and write about the real people in the story as though they were just part of your cast of fictional characters – giving them feelings, thoughts, relationships and actions right out of your imagination (and research). Think Wolf Hall, the Man Booker Prize-winning historical novel by Hilary Mantel, which portrays the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of King Henry VIII.

Of course, the closer you get to contemporary times – the ripped-from-the-headlines type of story – the riskier it is to “fictionalize” real people. Especially characters that readers already have a strong personal opinion about – be they heroes or villains. For instance, you probably don’t want to say anything mean about Pope Francis, or anything complimentary about Adolf Hitler. Unless you’ve been really despondent about your empty mailbox.

A poorly conceived mix of fact and fiction in your contemporary, ripped-from-the-headlines novel can also take you to the shores of the stormy Sea of Litigation. For instance, if you’re considering an unauthorized, fictionalized biography of a living person, might as well just go ahead and retain a lawyer right now. The risks include defamation, invasion of privacy and misappropriation of the right of publicity. Check lawyer and writer Helen Sedwick’s website for more on this topic.

In my (possibly paranoid) opinion, it’s also risky to muck about with potentially explosive revelations that cross the line between fiction and fact, whether they appertain to national security, sex habits of the rich and famous, dark corporate secrets, political scandals, or anything else that might make a real, live, super rich, not-too-scrupulous person apoplectic. But perhaps I’ve been watching too much TV.

As novelists, we all mix fact and fiction in our stories. It’s inevitable. Even science fiction and fantasy genres create their worlds on similarities and contrasts with normal old reality. Richly atmospheric novels draw readers into the story world by bringing life, detail and significance to real places, things and circumstances. But there’s a difference between simply bringing realism to the time and place of a story setting, and using real events and people as integral parts of the narrative.

It’s tricky, especially for fiction writers who strive to use imaginary stories to express some essential truth. We want to illuminate, not obscure. Lead, not mislead.

In our overstimulated, chaotic information age – where we’re all force-fed a steady diet of uncurated stories in print, on screen, and online – it seems the line between fact and fiction has become increasingly blurred and contorted. Sometimes I find myself wondering whether that line is in danger of completely disappearing, and what that would mean for the future of concepts like “trust” and “truth”.

So I like to keep track of that line between fact and fiction. Especially in my own writing.

3 thoughts on “The tricky art of mixing fact and fiction

  1. Great post, Silk. When you write about ancient myths that are supposed to have real historical roots, you can play with the ratio of reality to fiction more than in other genres.

  2. What an appropriate topic, Silk! As I read it, I felt as if you were looking at me. When I chose to write ‘Closing Time’ I struggled with that very issue. I wanted to write about a real event in history, even convey a message, but with fictional characters (except for Eisenhower and Khrushchev). But as I progressed, I knew I was treating the real events as a vehicle to tell my fictional story. Manipulative? I guess. Great post!

  3. A great post and interesting timing for me as my book club here in the desert are poised to next read:

    Euphoria, by Lily King.

    I haven’t read it yet, but Ms. King apparently tells:

    ” a breathtaking novel about three young anthropologists of the ‘30’s caught in a passionate love triangle that threatens their bonds, their careers, and, ultimately, their lives…”

    One of those anthropologists is the ‘real life’ Margaret Mead, but the story is ‘fictional’. Will be interesting to see how the author handles such a difficult task!

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