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Thursday, 11 October 2012

Do Facts Matter in Fiction?

Cover of "Britannica Encyclopedia (Encycl...
Cover of Britannica Encyclopedia (Encyclopaedia)

You’re a fiction writer, as am I. So, how important is it that we get our facts right? Aren’t we writing pieces that stem from imagination and exist in fantasy? Does it really matter if we present a fact as fiction and distort it a little? Is it important whether we actually tell the truth at all? Isn’t all fiction basically lies?

I ask these questions not frivolously but out of a sense of responsibility to my readers. I know that I’ve learned things about the world, people and things, from my fiction reading. I’ve accepted what a novelist or storyteller has told me in the course of a work of fiction, assuming that anything purporting to be true has, in fact (and, yes, I’m aware of the pun), been checked for accuracy. This is particularly the case when it involves a new subject or something generally only known by a small or esoteric group.

Cover of "The Spire"
Cover of The Spire
As an example, I learned that it was common practice for the builders of cathedrals in mediaeval times to incorporate a body, often a human, into one of the supporting pillars. The skilled craftsmen were largely pagan masons with little respect for the church authorities, and their acts of sacrifice may have been some sort of appeasement for their own gods for working on a monument to another religion. They also, of course, frequently modelled gargoyles on clerics of the time, often in mockery. I first came across this in the excellent novel by William Golding, The Spire, which I studied for my A level English Literature exam. Subsequent reading and some television documentaries seemed to corroborate the information. However, I can find nothing online to substantiate it, so I’m now in doubt about the facts.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I want my readers to have confidence that what I present as facts are actually facts, not some lazy assumption gleaned from inadequate research mixed with folklore and urban myth.

Yes, I want to weave my own story, using imagination and my creative skills to develop a story and people it with characters who come across as real and rounded human beings. But, when I introduce something in that story that’s presented as a fact, I want it to be true. I believe it’s the responsibility of the storyteller to do exactly that: to present facts as facts and not to exaggerate, diminish or embroider them to dramatize the tale. Anything that enhances the reader’s experience in emotional terms should derive from the characters, action and conflict, not from a distortion of the facts surrounding the text.

In preparation for this piece, I undertook some very basic research on a topic I knew to be uncertain. I wanted to illustrate how difficult, and important, it is to get the facts right, or as right as is possible. For it is the case that certain ‘facts’ do change over time, as more information is uncovered relative to the subject. A simple example of that is the way that history is presented over the ages. History, as we all know, is written by the victors. So the records left by a victor are frequently distorted in favour of that victor.

It was previously believed that the Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece, had special powers of observation that allowed her to see into the future. We now know that the site of her prophesies lies over a fault from which certain gases escape to invade the brain of the prophet, causing psychological disturbances that account for the apparent visions. The rest of her supposed successes are now put down to misinterpretation coupled with the tendency of people to particularise generalities.

Jupiter 2010-12-05
Jupiter 2010-12-05 (Photo credit: horstm42)
To get back to the subject I chose to illustrate the changing and sometimes unreliable nature of facts. We all know that Jupiter, the gas giant planet of our solar system, has many moons. But how many? I have a print copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, purchased as a research tool back in 1994. It’s the 1993 edition and states that Jupiter has ‘at least 16 moons’. This was what was known at the time. As part of the deal, I was signed up to receive printed updates to keep the volumes current and, in 2005, received an amendment that told me there were ‘28 known satellites’ of Jupiter. I found a site online (I won’t name them here), last updated on 14 September 2006, that told me Jupiter has ‘4 Galilean and 57 other moons’. In 2008 I updated my Encyclopaedia Britannica by buying the CD rom version. That edition tells me that Jupiter has ‘more than 60 known moons’. An undated article on the Enchanted Learning website tells me that the planet has ‘67 known moons, so far.’ The NASA website, updated on 2 October 2012, lists ‘50 moons and a further 14 provisional moons’. A Wikipedia article, dated 9 October 2012, cites ‘67 confirmed moons’. And undated, but copyrighted 2012, states the number as ‘a total of 67 known moons’.  The sensible conclusion, therefore, is that, currently, we know of 67 satellites circling our largest planet. And I’d be happy to use that figure in a story, since it’s the latest corroborated information I have available. I know it will change as more data come to light, but I’m no more able to predict the future than was the Oracle at Delphi, or any of the other prophets whose names litter the annals of religion and history.

So, check your facts before you release them to your readers and, if they’re subject to doubt or change, make that clear in some unobtrusive way. You owe your readers the truth.

Finally, I was inspired to write this piece following a short interview I watched on TV whilst eating breakfast this morning. The piece concerned an episode of a popular soap in the UK, EastEnders, and a storyline about social workers removing a child from one of the characters. There was much discussion about the dramatic element of the story, which was considered good television. However, the representative of the social workers was most concerned with the way in which the work of her fictional colleagues was represented. She accepted that different social workers operate at different levels but was more concerned that the procedures depicted were factually inaccurate and would therefore give viewers a false impression of this very emotive topic. I leave you to make your own conclusions on that.

So, there you have it. My attitude to the representation of facts in fiction is that we, as writers, have a duty to our readers to ensure we’re as accurate as possible. I’d be interested to learn your opinions. Please share them by commenting below.

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