Thursday, February 10, 2011

Fictional reality

Once I took a class taught by a police officer, to get more of the authentic background details and attitude in case I ever do a law enforcement character. Well, as you might expect (if you've ever watched a cop show on TV or read a book with a cop character), reality isn't as fun or as malleable as our imaginations, and at every stage, it seems like a major plot point was decimated. No, the lieutenant can't do that to the suspect. No, that's against the rules. No, she has to wear the department-issued boots. The officer was very clear that rules vary by department, but that the rules have to be fairly coherent (which makes me think of how the rules of vampirehood vary from story to story, but that it's important to have internal consistency, that Randy the Vampire can't go out into the sun safely in one book, and then burn up in the sun the next). (Not that I mean the police are like vampires. :)

Anyway, at one point a writer who just saw a major character development turn to dust said plaintively, "But this is fiction, right? So I can do what I want."

Ah, the eternal allure of fiction. You can make it up!

So, anyway, yeah. Good thought. Now what? What would you say is a good guideline for what-- in your opinion-- should be accurate, and what can be modified to fit your story's needs? What can you make up?

How about some examples. What fictional license would you allow yourself in your own story, or (more importantly, perhaps) allow in a story you are reading?

For example, I remember reading a book set in my own town, and it had Ohio Street running north-south. In fact, Ohio Street runs east-west, and the author grew up here, and it's an important street he'd probably know, so I figured there was some reason for this. Or is it silly to worry about that?

I needed a mall somewhere in a book, and I placed it in an actual town where there is no mall. (This is a peril of living in a big city-- I can't even imagine a world where there is no mall within driving distance. But I was just driving through rural Illinois, and every town had some variation of the dollar store, and no mall.) Okay, note to self: Always make up town names!

What about some professional procedure, like (I'm severely hampered by my lack of experience in Real Life :) a nurse bringing her daughter's preschool class into the nursery to see the babies? Or a clerk at the BMV typing out a new title right there in front of the customer instead of sending the information to the printing section to have it done on antelope-skin parchment or whatever the heck they do in the two weeks between applying for a title and getting it?

What about calling it "BMV" in a state where it's "DMV?"

What about things that contradict what we might think of as modern life, like a teacher being fired because she was seen in a bar by the principal? (In the 21st century, I mean. And public school.) What if we made it a private school? I'm not looking for advice here, but just some sense of whether it would worry you if you felt the author wasn't following due process and the law.

What about -- as happens all the time in cop shows-- the police officer slams a suspect into the wall of the interrogation room and demands a confession, and the bloodied suspect confesses, and it's not a problem?

Those all sound sort of easy, actually. We should find out if it's BMV or DMV, and what way Ohio St. runs. What's harder to decide?

What about things that could happen but probably wouldn't, like a minister at a church letting his non-ordained friend do the sermon on a Sunday when the minister has tickets to the early football game. (hey, that would be a serious dilemma.... 11 am service, 12 noon game... 45 yard-line seats....)
What about putting a fictional restaurant on a real corner? Like 42nd Street and 8th Ave? What if there's a famous actual restaurant right there?

What about putting a non-actual big event at a real place? Like a fictional mass murder at an actual college? What if it's in backstory, like she arrives for her freshman year at Harvard a few months after the murder?

What sort of debate would you go through? For example, when would you decide this isn't important, and when would you decide it is important? When would you change the name to something other than Harvard? Would you make up a "Gotham City" rather than use Manhattan?

When do you decide not to do the research needed to make sure that this is authentic? When do you go ahead and do what you want even after the research says the opposite of what you hope?

Just some insight here? Is this a dilemma you've faced?



Misha Gerrick said...


Even though I write fantasy, there's a certain real world aspect to it that really threatened to kill the story before it started.

Luckily I found a way to bypass it. That way also led to a few even better ideas and also led to explain certain other complications...

Otherwise, I would let some character do what I need them to and leave them to face the consequences.


veela-valoom said...

I don't know that's its something I've put a lot of thought into but its something maybe I should think about more.

On a related note: I'm from Kentucky and occasionally there are movies set in Kentucky with characters that are supposedly from Kentucky. Then they try pronouncing Louisville. There are different schools of thoughts even within Kentucky but most people say something similar to Lulh-vulh rather than Louis-ville or Louie-ville. It always immediately takes me out of the movie. I imagine if you're too specific in books about real places it can do the same thing to readers who know those places.

(And Versailles is not Ver-si. It's Ver-sales. Us Kentuckians like butchering french).

Debbie said...

How often do you see a character on television whose first book has been published, and the author is rolling in dough? Bouncers on rope lines recognize them, and the publisher sends them a Porsche just to say thanks. Oh, and the royalty checks roll in every week. I've given up on screamed at the screen, "It doesn't work that way!"

I like making up towns for my characters to play in. Then I can put things wherever I need them to be.

My first manuscript, however, is set in some real cities. Since the time is the early 1970s, I'm doing the best I can to remember and research. And hope I don't tick off too many people with long memories.

ClothDragon said...

@Veela, I'm sure I'm not the only one who just spent several minutes rolling the name Louisville around on their tongue to try out all those sounds. Thanks. :)

I've been reading "This is True" for a while. You'd be surprised at what police do. --Though it doesn't say how much they get away with.

Christine Tyler said...

Funny you bring this up. I'm the critic in my family, and it drives every one else nuts, especially my dad. His expectation when he sees a movie or reads a book is "just to be entertained." And that's where it ends. Usually. You see, even he will go BONKERS when writers start breaking their own rules.

This "internal consistency" as you say, is his one law. "Writers HAVE to stay within the bounds of the perimeters they have set," he'll say as he complains about I AM LEGEND and the fact that, even as zombies, people have no way of climbing up walls and across ceilings, or not being able to withstand sunlight earlier in the film, and then ignoring this during a "tight chase scene."

So while I may have all sorts of persnickety ways I could answer your question, I think of my dad instead, the ideal audience for many creators, someone content to "just be entertained" and the fact that, yes, even he, has limits.

And they're the ones YOU set.

Adrian said...

I've had several problems where what I started with was fine, and then the world changed.

For example, I was on the third or fourth draft of a science fiction story that hinged on how difficult it was to get water to places like the moon and Mars. Then NASA and others go and figure out that those places are practically dripping in (frozen) water, making the crazy shenanigans I was putting my characters through utterly idiotic. In the end, I abandoned the book.

In my current WIP, a mystery in Silicon Valley, plot premises have become outdated between drafts. IP laws changed, landmark corporations merged or failed, computationally intractable problems became feasible, cutting edge gadgets became everyday commodities. It's a struggle to keep the plot relevant with today, let alone 18 months from now when somebody else might actually read it.

Forcing yourself to adjust to reality is not always a handicap. In a thriller I wrote, the hero was to drive quickly up the Baja Peninsula from Cabo San Lucas to San Diego. I made the mistake of doing a little research on the route and learned that it's a treacherous road dotted with military-run checkpoints. The drive would take days instead of hours, and the checkpoints caused other sorts of plot problems. I managed to turn that one to my advantage by making the character discover these obstacles and forcing him to find another way.

Gossip Cowgirl said...

When I met Nora Roberts at Nationals last year, she told me she'd never been to Montana before--yet something like half her books are set here. (I live in Montana... backstory.) I decided then and there that I would never read one of her Montana books because I was sure she'd get it all wrong.

Well, I did read one of them. And she did get an awful lot wrong, but I didn't care a snit about it. Why? Because I loved the story and the characters so much, she could have gotten every Montana detail wrong, and I wouldn't have cared. The woman can just tell a story.

I say that to say, yes, we're writing fiction and we can make up an awful lot of whatever we want. But when I read poorly-written books, I pay a lot more attention to what they get wrong.

As Donald Maas says, story is king.

Jami Gold said...

Oh, interesting post! I agree that the author should always be internally consistent. Any exceptions to that better have a good reason.

As far as other things based in reality, I guess it would depend on how critical it was to the world of the book. If it was a plot point (even minor), I'd expect the details to be researched and accurate. If it was an off-the-cuff detail with no bearing on anything, I'd be more likely to shrug.

Mark Entner said...

I think the key is to avoid making up things that would pull the reader out of the story. If you were to change the direction of a street in Clermont, FL it probably wouldn't be as much of an issue as changing the direction of a street in New York City.

As long as it won't be jarring to the reader (or at least most readers) I'd say you can let your creativity run wild.

M. M. Justus said...

Geographical errors bug the heck out of me. Esp. for places I've been. And don't even get me started on mispronunciations -- years ago when I was commuting 5 hours one way (every other weekend) to grad school, I listened to an old favorite book, William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways. The reader was fine. Until Least Heat Moon got to Oregon and the reader pronounced Willamette as Will' a met. It's Will a' met, dammit (yes, that rhymes, no it's not original to me). I did listen to the rest of the book, but I kept wondering what other unfamiliar-to-me place names the reader was butchering.

Jordan McCollum said...

I lurve this post because I am OBSESSED with getting things right in the real world. (This is annoying when you write with a co author who doesn't care about this stuff when drafting.) (But I love her anyway.)

I'm more likely to use a real city, but if I have to pin down a location to more than a neighborhood, I make up a street that sounds authentic. I wonder if that's enough. Or I give a street number that doesn't exist. That'll probably drive someone crazy someday. ;)

Anonymous said...

I'm actually afraid to set a novel in a place I've never been (unless of course I make up that place) because I do not want to get it wrong. Not only just geographically, but can't think of the word, but I don't want to get wrong the way people of that region act. I've lived enough places to know that every place is different, some more so than others. The way people act in Hawaii is not the way they act in Upstate New York. Upstate New York is a world apart from NYC. And for me, if I've been to a place, it takes me out of the story when they get it wrong. And even if the story's good enough that I'll keep reading, there's been that jarring, that reminding that what I'm reading is fictional. If I am reading a reality based novel, I want it to be something that could happen, even if it hasn't.
I don't mind however, when authors make up there own town. Especially if they keep it nameless. Then it just feels like a place I could have visited, and maybe I have. But I'm not thinking things like Hurricane, Utah is pronounced Her-i-cuhn. Or, I don't care that they have McDonald's everywhere--that place doesn't have one.
The same goes for a profession. If I don't know much about it, it doesn't bother me. But if I do, it drives me crazy when they get all sorts of things wrong about it because that's the way they want it to be.

Edittorrent said...

I'm like that-- nervous about setting it where I haven't been. Even if I have been there, I'm sure I'll make some dumb error, like calling coke "pop" instead of "soda".