Can The Story Override Reality?

I’ve had some interesting discussions lately about how much reality there needs to be in fiction.

At a book club meeting last week, one of the members suddenly burst out: “why do characters do such stupid things? It’s just not realistic.” We all knew exactly what he meant: why do pairs of detectives or investigators always split up in dangerous situations? Why does the sidekick always ignore the advice to ‘stay there’? How can the characters break the rules and get away with it? And why does the hero go into the villain’s den alone, without calling for back-up?

But we also all knew the answer: because if they didn’t do apparently stupid things, there would be no story. For most people, most of the time, real life is straightforward and safe. And safe is boring. It’s conflicts, dilemmas, difficulties that propel the plot forward. And in fiction, especially genre fiction; in most films; and in TV drama, plot is (almost) everything.

Then today in the writers’ circle meeting we discussed the importance of research, especially in historical fiction; about faction versus fiction; and about changing history for the sake of a good story. There was a mix of views about what was acceptable and one conclusion drawn was that it depends on the period being portrayed. The further away it is, the more you can get away with.

Now we’ve all seen anachronistic faux pas on TV, like a zipper on a dress in the Tudor court. That’s obviously not right. We know for a fact that there were no zips around at that time. But when it comes to something about which there is less documented fact, where experts disagree among themselves anyway, then it might be concluded that the writer can make their own mind up on which way to go.

Every book, film or drama contains dialogue. We rarely have a record of historical conversations; so by definition, the dialogue is made up. What’s wrong with making other things up as well?

It’s called fiction for a reason. Because it’s not true. So I would conclude that reality shouldn’t be allowed to get in the way of a good story.

Readers, what do you think? How important is reality in your favourite stories?

By Elizabeth Ducie

Elizabeth Ducie was a successful international manufacturing consultant, when she decided to give it all up and start telling lies for a living instead.

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