Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fact versus Fiction

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that most of you reading this blog write fiction (or at least primarily so).

Today I want to open it up to a discussion of sorts.  I'm going to give an example, give my thoughts on it, then I want you to speak up in the comments section.

When is it okay to bend the rules of reality?  And I'm not talking about the obvious here.  Meaning I'm not talking about paranormal elements and things like that.  I'm talking nitty-gritty reality.  The sort of stuff that if your readers were to do a simple search they wouldn't find something in the first result that contradicts something you wrote.


On a recent episode of the CBS series NCIS the team had to track down someone who'd killed a couple of people by a slow-release injection of ricin.  Now, ricin is a very real, very toxic, very poisonous substance.

Well, one of the people who'd been poisoned hadn't died yet.  It was a slow process and all that.  This character was told that there was no antidote for ricin and that it was only a matter of time before death came.

After the episode, I did a quick search.  I was pretty sure that the guy in the news a couple years ago after making ricin in a hotel room and getting sick himself from it didn't actually die.

First result that pops up?  Ricin isn't necessarily going to kill you.  But it will leave deep-tissue and possibly even organ damage if it doesn't.  And there is an antidote.

It's bugged me ever since now.  And the question I posed earlier is even more vexing.  I mean, I am currently writing an urban fantasy so there are clearly rules of nature that I'm violating.

But I've been concerned that some of the nitty-gritties aren't true to life.  I'm having to remind myself that sometimes it's okay to bend the rules and facts of reality.  I'm still concerned and maybe I'll have to tweak some of these details later on.  But for now they're staying because I'm probably the only one in the world who would actually go look something up to verify and fact-check it.

In the end, I think that if it'll make the story stronger to stick to reality, even if it means you're going to have to rework the entire status quo changing scene, then stick to reality.  If bending the rules makes it better then do it.

What about you?  When do you feel it's okay to bend the nitty-gritties?  Do you fact-check random things like I do?  Or are you more laid back and just go with the flow?


  1. I feel you! It's so funny how there are some rules that can be bent or completely ignored, while other things need to be explained properly.

    The biggest thing as an author is to establish trust with the reader by making sure there are reasons for the rules you're breaking. It's a hard balance!!

  2. This has actually been a big issue for me as well after handing over the first 25K words of my WIP to a beta reader. She pointed out two very basic facts that I hadn't bothered to confirm that she was like "this was so wrong it ruined this part for me." I didn't know they were wrong, but because of her own areas of knowledge she knew. And then it made me look like an idiot. I'm also the person who will go look something up because it sounds wrong, so I think unless you are purposely breaking the rules for a reason (like a paranormal reason), it's not a good idea. I think it breaks the suspended disbelief for a reader (especially if you're like me and facts are your life). Just my two cents.

  3. For me, I can let things slide as long as I'm caught up in the story. I'm not one to run off and check out some facts. However, I have come across something before that I knew was wrong and it did irk me. So I guess I would play it safe when writing and try to stick to the facts as much as possible.

  4. Great post!

    I was discussing almost the exact same thing with my sister last night while reviewing one of my earlier novel attempts.

    I am the type to fact-check, but only if something seems out of the ordinary. I write mostly fantasy though, so I think the rule bending can be applied here in many situations.

    I think when your fantasy world starts blending with the real world however, you need to be certain that at least half of your facts are well researched and accurate - especially the ones based on reality.

    You need to instill trust in your reader - they need to know you are not leading them astray.

  5. It's a good question. I think reading fiction is a very strange mental process - we know it's all made up, and yet we want it to be real. So if something jumps out as inconsistent or unreal, it does spoil things.

    The fantasy point is interesting - we are perfectly happy to accept that in the novel's world, vampires or magicians exist and strange things happen, but will still carp over the "nitty-gritty" stuff not sounding real.

    I think in the end it's about internal consistency. If within the story it's important for things to work differently, then have all the traffic lights upside-down and the cars travelling sideways or whatever you want, as long as it works that way all the way through the novel. But if there's just one particular detail that's wrong for no apparent reason, then it seems like a slip and undermines the reader's trust.

    Interesting post, and one that certainly got me thinking!


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