Fact in Fiction

This morning something happened to me which was so trite and clichéd I would have been embarrassed to have written it.

Just near my house a car sped through an intersection, the passenger door swung open and a woman inside half flung herself out screaming “Help me please! Somebody help me!”. The car pulled over and I went to help, and interrupted an apparent situation of domestic violence. I convinced the driver to let the lady out of the car and he drove off. For her part, once she was out of the car, she wanted nothing from me but to get away and offers of hospitality or kindness or further assistance were declined. She went on her way and I had the sense that the situation was unresolved. I warned her he could easily come back, and sure enough when she was half a block away he did. There was no more violence and he spoke to her briefly before driving off again and she walked away. I called the police but they couldn’t do much without her reporting the incident or making a complaint against him.

I post this here because once the adrenaline had died down and my head was returning to normality my first reaction was: there’s a story in this.

Perhaps that is the life of the writer: that all the events we observe become fodder for our craft, grist for our mill.

My next reaction though was that it was too unrealistic – too clichéd! Are we supposed to believe our narrator just happens to be at that intersection, at that time? Are we supposed to believe the antagonist just drives off? That the ‘damsel’ rejects her rescuer as quickly as she rejected her attacker? And what kind of ending does this story provide. In the denouement does she return to the abusive relationship? Is the climactic intervention of our protagonist entirely pointless, merely a temporary disruption to the status quo?

It occurred to me that if this tale were to make good fiction it would need some serious amendments and revisions – perhaps some heavy re-writes.

So what role does fact have in fiction? and how beholden are we as creators of fiction to fact?

China Mieville populates his world with living cacti, scarab-headed beauties and trans-dimensional spider-gods, they move amid forests of frozen lightning, clouds of gaseous rock and cities polluted by thaumaturgic effluent, and yet they work because there are some facts that make them relatable. People are greedy and kind and nasty and brutal and selfless and contradictory, exactly as we know them to be. They behave factually in the most fictitious setting. Lord of the Rings works for the same reason (though despite Tolkein’s objections it is easier to read as a bucolic allegory of post-industrialism). Star Wars likewise: inter-stellar travel, alien races and an inexplicable Force (midichlorians be damned – The Force should not have to be explained) but amidst that a relatable human story (boy meets girl, boy likes girl, girl likes smuggler, Wookie misses out on a medal, boy is trained by a muppet backpack, boy and girl are siblings… the usual).

Conversely “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” opened this week. If I type ‘Abraham’ into Google the auto-search function has ‘Abraham Lincoln’ as top suggestion, and ‘Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter’ second. Here the setting is ostensibly (in that Steam-punk / Alt-history way) a factual one. Real historical figures at a real point in history, acting out a plot of pure fiction. To what extent then do the writers owe us a ‘factual’ Lincoln. I suspect to no extent whatsoever.

And what then of the cases on the indistinct borders of these realms. What of the ‘based on an extraordinary true story films/ Films like ‘The Blindside‘ for instance, which presents the story of Sandra Bullock pulling Michael Oher out of ghetto-crack-oblivion, teaching him to play football, giving him Kathy Bates to lift his GPA and basically providing him with professional sporting success. A great story of heart-warming selflessness and triumph over adversity. To what extent did this film owe us such facts as Michael Oher’s recognised success in football pre-existing the intervention of Sandra Bullock’s character (he had achieved all-state selection and was rated 5th best lineman prospect in the country a year before he met Leigh Anne Tuohy), or that he lifted his GPA by taking online courses through Brigham Young University; scoring As in English to replace the Ds and Fs he was awarded in school?

Is the story not better if he comes into her care hopeless and becomes exceptional? Doesn’t that work better as a narrative arc? Isn’t it better fiction if his sudden success can be traced to a single inspirational speech rather than a montage of repetitive training? I think undoubtedly so.

So perhaps I will use my experience for a short story. It will be ridiculously over the top and require a great suspension of disbelief… and you will know those are the factual bits.

As TVTropes point out, reality is unrealistic, and as a famous Australian children’s author once said: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn”.

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2 responses to “Fact in Fiction

  • breadofgold

    This is really a rather interesting topic to explore.
    I admit to protesting your claims of cliché at first, but it IS over the top. If I read it in a story, I would scoff and guffaw. Probably even snort!

    Got me thinking though… Why is this so? Of course it seems trite, contrived, and completely transparent. But it happened! It ACTUALLY happened. Should reality be stranger than fiction? Should we look for greater ‘reality’ in our fiction than that which is supplied by our actual reality?

    It’s definitely something I struggle with constantly as a writer – You almost don’t want to write about *anything* happening to your protagonist, for fear that it will come across as ‘just too pat’, convenient, contrived, or (heaven forfend!) clichéd!!
    Why then would I be writing about that protagonists story?
    Imagine now, that there exists a cosmic author, of some sort – she has just begun to write the story of a certain J. Melican. Why? Because something incredible just happened to him, the catalyst in a chain of events that will… well, I’m sure she knows where the plot is going.

    I recently started writing a novel where the initial ‘encounter’ for the protagonist is very likely incredibly contrived. It’s not quite ‘magical wardrobe’, but it’s pretty close.
    Besides, it’s just the first step on the journey – if the rest of it is mind-blowing enough, people forgive/forget the ‘triteness’ that started it all.

    Don’t they?

  • The Narrative Present « J. Michael Melican

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