Fiction, Faction And Research

Using real people in a work of fiction has become much more common in recent years than it used to be. Arthur Conan Doyle, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Thomas Cromwell, Elizabeth of York and numerous other leaders, writers, artists etc. have been portrayed as themselves in fiction as opposed to biography or historical textbook. Almost invariably, these prominent people who are assimilated into fiction are dead, and in most cases, they have been dead for some considerable time, meaning that the chances of their portrayals being challenged or denied by people who knew them or are directly and recently related to them are virtually nil. However, it should always be remembered that writers who use this approach are quick to assert the amount and detail of the preparatory research, and will publish long bibliographies to prove the authenticity of the picture they are presenting.

It is understandable to make the assumption that the same care might not need to be applied to people who are not “celebrities”. Authors who believe that a particular real-life character from their past will probably only be known to them can find themselves in trouble if the way the person is portrayed becomes disputed by others who knew them. It is obviously difficult and legally dubious to quote from specific cases, but in the recent past there have been a number of examples of descriptions of past events or people which have been at best disputed, and at worst, become the subjects of legal proceedings. Perhaps the most obvious cases have arisen in what has come to be known as “misery lit”, when a particularly traumatic or challenging earlier life has been portrayed, and the people who are clearly being alluded to question the veracity of what has been written. I am not a legal expert, and cannot interpret the intricacies of libel law, but it does have to be borne in mind that, even when a memory seems very reliable and details appear to remain vivid, a certain amount of basic research is probably still going to be necessary. The human memory is a fickle and sometimes treacherous phenomenon, and even details of time and place can prove to be inaccurate when the actual truth is investigated. Would-be writers, in any case, are going to find that making progress will prove to be difficult without developing research skills. Anachronisms, inaccuracies, erroneous sequences, people being in places and times where it can be proved they were not, will still be picked up on even if the readership is in hundreds rather than thousands.

As mentioned earlier, the Internet is immensely useful in this respect, but there might also be recollections in various forms from people living at the time, and it’s still possible that local libraries, people or organisations may have materials or, in the case of the recent past, personalised accounts available. It might be assumed that fiction concerning itself with the future or with imaginary worlds might not need to take so much care over research and preparation. However, in the case of science fiction, readers are known to be very good at perceiving impossibilities, contradictions and plots which simply do not make sense. Even the invented or imagined has to hang together in some kind of logical manner for it to be acceptable to many readers. Neither is it wise to assume that shorter pieces of fiction are less likely to expose the illogical or absurd. If anything, the relatively lower numbers of words mean writers have to be that much more careful with their organisation of material, because there is less time and space available to produce a credible piece of fiction.

There are people who believe that spontaneity and immediacy should be the most valid characteristics of writing fiction, and that constant rewriting, rechecking and research will tend to produce stale, over-complicated results. Fiction is a broad church in terms of approach and methodology, and the virtues of writing “straight out of the head” do appeal irresistibly to some. But I would maintain that, in the first place, this idea is as much about saving time as it is about producing good results and, in the second, the great majority of successful writers will tend to be concerned with proper preparatory research and techniques of rewriting and rechecking. One final point needs to be made in this section, I think. Accuracy and authenticity are not just about dates, times and places. The attitudes and values of historical periods often differ radically from our own, and to impose modernity on earlier ages can produce fiction which is unconvincing at best and risible at worst. Research needs to look at how people thought and acted at the time, and to assimilate how this played to everyday lives. Concerning more modern situations and relationships, it is always useful for writers to be aware that whatever prejudices, stereotypes or categorisations come with their own territory, people with different ages, sexes, races, sexualities or nationalities may not and probably will not share them. Much as we would all like live in a world where everyone agreed with us, the world tends not to be like that.