Horses and Blue Trolls: How Real Should Fiction Be?
I'm one of Terry critique partners, so I get to see her books while they're still "under construction", and offer comments on how she might make them better. Sometimes she even listens to me ;-)
**Note from Terry. I ALWAYS listen. I just don't always agree.
Many of Terry's characters are cops or military men, and she goes to great lengths to get every detail of their jobs and procedures right. But when she needed an obscure disease for which a character was trying to find a cure, she didn't hesitate to make one up. It wasn't a passing reference, either - it was a major part of the plot. We had a heated, if good-natured, debate, in which my position was, "You can't do that," and hers was, "Why not?"
Terry won that debate, but it set me wondering about what you can make up, and what you have to get right. People who read the sort of books that Terry writes know a lot about police and military matters, and will spot the smallest mistake. But it's probably safe to assume that the percentage of people researching rare metabolic disorders among her audience is not appreciably different from the population at large.
I read a book that was set in the town where I lived, and it was plain that the author hadn't done the research about the town - no mention of famous landmarks or even major streets, and he got the name of the main hospital wrong. It wasn't a particularly good book anyway, but that spoiled what little chance I had of enjoying it. On the other hand, someone who wasn't familiar with the town probably wouldn't have noticed these problems.
One of the online comics I read had a story where one character defended another character in a lawsuit. Nothing unusual about that, except that the defending counsel was a cute, cuddly 400-pound blue troll. The artist remarked that he got a lot of messages from readers who - while they presumably had no difficulty accepting the existence of this character within the world of the comic - were nevertheless curious as to how he could practice law without having passed the bar exam.
The lesson I drew from all this was that if the reader couldn't reasonably be expected to prove you wrong, make up whatever you want, as long as it sounds plausible and is self-consistent (writers not sticking to their own rules is a whole other rant). But when you step into areas where the reader is likely to know something about the subject, do your research.
I write fantasy, so you might think I can get away with making everything up. Not so... if I did that, no one would understand the story, or it would be bogged down with explanations of every trivial detail (though that does sound like a few fantasy novels I've read). For example, most fantasy stories, my own included, have the characters riding around on horses. This isn't a lack of imagination so much as a desire to get the reader up to speed quickly. The word "horse" conveys a lot of information about what the animal looks like and how it behaves. A made-up animal doesn't come with that ready-made set of mental images. Sometimes you want a clean slate (the bad guy's minions in my current book are an invented species, for instance), but if you just need to get the good guys from A to B faster than they can walk, horses will do the job with a minimum of fuss.
Of course, using an existing animal takes you back to the possibility of some readers knowing more about it than you. I've ridden a horse exactly once, about 30 years ago. That's probably one time more than a lot of people, but I didn't want to risk having someone tell me, "In chapter 29, the knight's horse would have dropped dead of exhaustion 50 miles outside the city, so he couldn't get there just in time to rescue the princess from having to marry her wicked step-uncle." I suppose I could say "my horses have more stamina than real horses," but that would be cheating - wanting the benefit of the reader's expectations when it suits me, and putting them aside when it doesn't.
I actually considered paying for some riding lessons - there's a stable not far from where I live - and then I thought that would wipe out the likely profit on the book. (Could I have claimed a deduction on my taxes, I wonder?) Fortunately, there is an easier solution. If you don't know a lot about a subject, you can sometimes get away with having the character not know much about it either. For my current book, I took this approach. The heroine has never ridden a horse before the start of the book. The first few times, she sits behind someone who knows what he's doing, so all she has to do is not fall off and grumble about being sore when she dismounts. By the time she finally rides a horse on her own, I hope I've conditioned the reader to expect that I won't say much about the actual riding, so she just goes from A to B without much fuss.
I'm working on a sequel to the book. This time, the heroine will do most of her traveling by sailing ship... which I also know next to nothing about. Back to the library!
Steve Pemberton is a thirty-something software developer from England. He is not the one who is already famous as a comedian. In his spare time, he is currently trying to move the covers of a novel closer together.