The Use of Fact in Fiction

Stories rely on a writer’s ability to create a reality that is quickly and easily understood by an audience that hasn’t seen, let alone imagined, that reality themselves. The more convincing the reality, the more compelling the story, and the better the story does its job. When a credible reality forms the foundation of a story, that story more powerfully entertains (or – if you’re into that sort of thing – educates). As far as I’m concerned, fact always makes fiction better. And in the age of the internet, people expect accuracy.

You can sometimes assume a certain amount of forgiveness for the realities you create, depending on your genre. For example, the actually-quite-ridiculous tropes that make up fairytales (dress in a walnut, anyone?) are accepted as an established part of the storytelling. No one questions a talking animal in a Grimm’s fable. It would be like going to a musical and demanding to know why everyone breaks into songs that perfectly tie into their feelings and/or the overarching theme of the plot. Once a reader recognizes the threads of a traditional fairytale in the story they’re reading, they immediately become more indulgent of the author’s reality.

Scifi is another genre. As long as it’s not hard science fiction, you can play fast and loose with physical reality. Every third-grade student with a basic grasp of the solar system would laugh at Ray Bradbury’s 1950 depiction of Venus as a planet constantly besieged by rain and covered by fungus if he’d written it now, but “All Summer in a Day” is still a terribly accurate depiction of the cruelty of children. Just make sure your people are acting like people, and consistently follow your own rules. Venus is a rain-drenched world overgrown with plants? Fine, but it still better be by the end of it.

However, if a book’s reality is based in the real-world, real-world rules must apply. Never has the reader been more skeptical or more ready to defend his skepticism than in the age of wireless connections, smartphones, and Google search. With the advent of the internet, every reader has easy access to nearly infinite libraries, and a story must survive any immediate fact-checking to its basic reality when everyone, as they say, is a critic. A book is judged as much by the facts that exist within its covers as by its plot.

This is not a challenge that belongs solely to the cyberspace generations. H. G. Wells was a particular master of setting the fantastic upon the mundane. War of the Worlds, written in 1898 and based on the areas in which he lived and explored by bicycle, details an alien invasion in which, in his own words, “I completely wreck and sack Woking – killing my neighbors in painful and eccentric ways – then proceed via Kingston and Richmond to London, which I sack, selecting South Kensington for feat of peculiar atrocity.” He didn’t simply write about an imaginary alien invasion. He wrote about an imaginary alien invasion that took place in a real time and place. Aliens were one of the few imaginary aspects of the piece.

(Fun fact: apparently Jules Verne, the father of science fiction and a contemporary of Wells, complained that Wells used scientifically implausible inventions, like time machines and spaceships not powered by coal or other late 19th century mechanisms for power. Still, though Wells’ devices may not have worked in the real-world, his ideas could be imagined in it. His use of mundane reality made the fantastic believable.)

William Golding did something similar in my favorite illustration of original sin ever, Lord of the Flies. According to the overly wordy introduction to my copy (said the blogger in her overly wordy essay on the use of fact in fiction), he presumably used the teachings of psychoanalysts, anthropologists, social psychologists, philosophical this, that, or the other (if it had an “ologist” at the end of it or a “p” at the start it made the list) and wrote a disturbingly plausible thought-experiment on what happens to humanity when you remove all civil constraints and leave sinful man to his own devices.

(In short: Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!)

Eesh. Good times, Bill. I once read William Golding explaining the too-optimistic end to his novel – an adult coming in deus ex machina style to save the boys from themselves – as nothing of the kind. The last image of the novel is the naval officer turning from the weeping main character to look at his cruiser, trim, civilized, and prepped for war. Man can never save man from himself. Without the psychological (and – dare I say – theological) understanding of the evil inbred in our nature, Lord of the Flies would have been a mere adventure story. Just one of thousands.

Animal Farm (subtitled “A fairy story”) is another favorite dystopian nightmare of mine. Written by George Orwell in 1945 – while Soviet Russia was still the great hero and ally of WWII – he used talking barn animals and a farm run by communist pigs to criticize the government hailing out of Moscow. A socialist himself, Orwell had narrowly escaped the communist manhunts in Spain, and he was dismayed at – as he put it – “how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries.” Still busy singing Stalin’s praises, companies in both Britain and American refuses to publish the satire, right up until the Cold War.

The pointed comparisons that Animal Farm made between socialist ideals and the reality of communist Russia were – and are – powerful. Read through many internet discussion boards and it becomes clear that Orwell is alive and well. Though one of the reigning adages on the internet is Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies (which maintains that every argument on an internet chat forum will inevitably lead to a comparison to Hitler or Nazism), the following could easily be added as a subset: that every political argument will also eventually invoke “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”  The “fairy story” is over seventy years old, and still making people mad. That is the power of fact.

Of course, not all fiction is created equal (some of it is, one could argue, more equal than others), and not every story intends to make a point. Many are written primarily to entertain. But how well it entertains depends just as much on fact as the book that was written to teach. For $8.75 at the local bookstore, fantasies provide hours of some of the best escapism out there, and are even more firmly bound by rules than “real” fiction.

Harry Potter, for example, is a world based on magic and the clever bastardization of Latin words, yet it clearly resonates with people across countries, continents, and oceans. Why? Because it is founded, at a deeper level, on reality. There are trolls and giants and magical games on broomsticks, but there are also children going to school and studying for exams and trying to figure out what to do when faced with hard choices. Everyone understands the struggle to grow and move on and face forward. Create a reality that allows your reader to fully immerse in both story and characters, and a school fantasy of epic good vs. evil makes an author billions.

Even better, entertainment almost always accidentally teaches. Westerns owe much of their appeal to the guarantee that the good guy always win (and the bad guys are not only hatchet-faced but also have names like Scut and Fargus), but they’re also a great portrayal of the Old West. I’ve learned more from Louis L’amour than I ever expected to*. Romances too run about a dime a dozen, but the ones that are passed on from generation to generation have, at their heart, an understanding of human psychology, social constraints, and a depiction of history from a domestic perspective. Jane Austen survived the century, as did the Brontë sisters. Gone with the Wind lives on as both a romance and a look at life during and after the Civil War. It demonstrates the everyday struggles of the time period (and how that may have felt) in a way that no history book can ever quite capture.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 is my young adult go-to example. Based on a very real event (the unsolved bombing of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, where four teenage girls were killed during the civil rights period) the author neither preaches nor sermonizes. Instead, most of his story focuses on the Watson family and their hilarious everyday lives. Yet by the time the bombing occurs in the storyline, I’ve been sucked into the perspective of a young black boy in the 60s. “Although these names,” Christopher Paul Curtis writes in the epilogue of his novel, referring to the four young women killed, “may be nothing more than names in a book to you now, you must remember that these children were just as precious to their families as Joetta was to the Watsons or as your brothers and sisters are to you.”  

Knowledge never limits; it enhances and broadens. As the world opens up, so do the stories. In many ways, that has always been the point of fiction. By no means do facts destroy imagination. Even in the scientific world, two scientists working from the same set of observable data may come up with completely different theories. Rather, facts provide opportunities to create believable realities. Stories based on an accurate understanding of either the world or – at the very least – the people in it can better hold up against the hordes of armchair scholars ready and willing to crush the hours you poured into spinning the weave of your world into so much forgettable pulp.

Pour truth into the undergirding of your story, and time may well let you pass unhindered. In 1993, when asked to write an introduction for To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee refused. “Mockingbird,” she wrote in a short foreword, “still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without preamble.”

*Bank a fire against a rock to project heat. Look back as you walk a trail so that you may better recognize it when you return. If you stare into a fire you won’t be able to see anything for a few crucial seconds between staring at the fire and firing your weapon at someone creeping up on you in the dark.