Writing Corner: Accuracy in Fiction

The good thing about writing fiction is that it’s not true. That means you don’t have to cite sources or do any research. If the facts don’t fit your story, you can change the facts. It’s pretty sweet.

But does a story have to be accurate at all? If so, how much? That is what I want to talk about today.

Why do We Care?

If the story is made up, why should we care about how accurate parts of it are? The reason is that although the reader knows that the story is not real, they want to believe it is real. This is what we call suspension of disbelief. That means they agree to pretend that the story is true. However, this is broken if the writer breaks the rules of the story world. If a character in a superhero story picks up a car that’s fine, but if a person in an otherwise totally realistic story picks up a car, that’s not believable. That breaks the rules of our reality.

Making the Rules

You are the writer and so you can decide what is “true” in your story. However, the closer the setting is to our present-day reality, the more accurate you need to be. After all, your readers will probably live in present-day reality and they know the rules. Here are some examples of the rules of our present-day reality:

  • Cars use gas, go fast, but don’t fly
  • You can call most anyone in the world very easily
  • Children in most developed countries have to go to school
  • Police are paid by the government
  • Money can be exchanged for goods or services
  • Traveling to the other side of the world takes about a day

These are some of the thousands of rules we know about our present-day reality. You can change any of them, but then it’s not present-day reality and you have to let the reader know that.

If you are writing a story in the far future or in a fantasy world, the rules will be more flexible but there are other issues we’ll look at below.

Following the Rules

You, as the writer, need to know what the rules of your world are so you can follow them. This has two parts: plausibility and consistency.

Plausibility:

This just means that the story makes sense based on the rules of your world. For example, if a person in our present-day reality wakes up in Japan, it is not plausible that they will be in London five hours later since we know that modern planes don’t go that fast (not to mention checking in at the airport, etc.) It might be plausible in a science fiction story, but if the story took place a thousand years ago, a journey shorter than several months would not be plausible.

This is why writing a book about technical topics in the modern world can be more difficult than a science fiction or fantasy world. After all, we don’t know everything about the modern world (at least I don’t; I just assuming you don’t either.)

There are two ways to get around this:

1. Fudge it.

This is when you just make your best guess of what is accurate and keep writing. This is easier since you can concentrate on the story without worrying about a million background details. The downside is that it might take the reader of the story if there is a glaring inaccuracy, like someone in the 1970’s looking something up online. Most readers might overlook your characters living in a high-rise apartment in Washington DC, but anyone who knew Washington DC would know there are no high-rises there, which breaks their suspension of disbelief. It’s up to you how much you care about things like this.

Another problem is that if you just go with your gut, you will probably unconsciously go with standard tropes or stereotypes from books, TV, or movies that aren’t accurate. Some examples:

  • Rabbits eat carrots
  • Vikings wore horned helmets
  • Hitting someone on the head will knock them out for a few hours
  • There is sound in space
  • Throwing plastic explosives (C4) in a fire will make it explode
2. Do Research

Researching the setting or topic of your story is good since it makes it more accurate, which means it will be more realistic. However, it can also stop the writing momentum if you spend hours looking up facts about echidnas (as I did recently for the story Puggle) or researching the layout of a typical rural Filipino town (as in the case of Ate Hidilyn).

The good news is that with the Internet it is much easier to do research than in the past. You can find information on almost anything very quickly online.

There is a certain type of writer that will write research notes on sticky notes until their desk is slowly buried.

Consistency

The other big part about following the rules you’ve set out is to be consistent with them. This can be the difficult part about writing a fantasy or science fiction book. After all, you can make up any rules you want, but once they’re there, you have to follow them.

For example, if your story has magic in it and people can create things from nothing, then they should be able to create money too. Which means that there would not be rich and poor people. If a character can fly, he should do this whenever it would be helpful, and not conveniently forget about it when the story needs him to.

Are you the type to research details or just fudge it? Do you think some details are more important to be accurate about than others? Let me know in the comments.

If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at info@greenwalledtreehouse.com.

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