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Fiction vs Reality: Where do we draw the line?

Updated: Mar 21, 2020

A question on one of our university forums got me thinking about fiction and reality and the relationship between them. It made me wonder when, if and why it is important for writers to stick to the ‘truth’ if they are writing about real people or historical events.

A couple of weekends ago, I attended a lecture given by Dr. Sam Newton of the Wuffings Educational Trust about King Raedwald – the Anglo-Saxon king whose burial ship was discovered at Sutton Hoo. My reasons for attending were twofold: firstly, my 4 year old is completely obsessed with Raedwald (the whole family has been assigned roles in the story and we are made to act out his battle with Aethelfrith of Northumbria and I have had to promise that when he dies he can be buried in a ship!) and I needed some new information to give him as he had questions I couldn’t answer; secondly, because of the aforementioned ‘interest’ I wanted to find a place for Raedwald in the series of books I’m writing for my two boys and needed some background information so I could work out how to weave him into the story.

The course was incredibly interesting and suited my purposes wonderfully. However, it did leave me with something of a dilemma. I had included a character called Enitharmon (Eni for short) in the fantasy land, loosely based on the work of William Blake. In Blake’s mythology, Enitharmon is a man, but I had decided to make the character female as otherwise, the narrative would be too male dominated for my liking. This didn’t pose too much of a problem for me, as the character was fictional anyway. However, on the course it transpired that Raedwald had a brother called Eni and I decided that my character would equate to the historical Eni, as this would be a way to include Raedwald in my story. However, was it right, historically and ethically to change history in this way? I decided that it was. BUT, that being the case, why did I feel that because – contrary to the St Osyth parish council website – Osyth was not married to Raedwald, I couldn’t write it as though she was, even though it would have made my life much easier if she had been? Why was changing someone’s gender acceptable, but moving someone a few years out of their history and marrying them off to somebody, a step too far?

I have seen, on various Agatha Christie fan pages, hordes of complaints about Sarah Phelps’ adaptations of Christie novels for TV. These criticisms are generally based around the central issue that Phelps did not stick to the original plots and made too many changes. Although I did enjoy some of her adaptations, I did find myself agreeing with a lot of the points made. However, is there really any difference between making changes to someone else’s fictional creations and altering timelines etc in a historical fiction novel in order to make the plot work? This is a device that many novelists use and they are rarely criticised for it. Philippa Gregory’s novels frequently play with history in order to put the female characters at the centre of the plot and to make a more interesting narrative. She acknowledges this fact and although some people don’t like it, in the main, it is a non-issue. Is it just that people feel less strongly about history than they do about the characters in their favourite books?

This question also arises in works of fiction. In The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, the heroine, Thursday Next enters the book of Jane Eyre and in doing so, inadvertently changes the ending of the book. In the world of the book, this is not seen as a massive problem. However, later in the series, there is a plan to make reading more interesting by allowing the public to choose which characters get evicted from Pride and Prejudice in a Big Brother style TV show. Thursday is (quite rightly in my opinion) appalled by this and works to stop it happening. However, why is something that was acceptable for Jane Eyre, not acceptable for Pride and Prejudice?

At the moment, I don’t have an answer for any of these questions and there is no template to tell writers when it is or isn’t acceptable to change real events to suit our literary purposes, but it is something we need to consider carefully when the situation arises. For myself, I think it’s about whether the change needs to take place – does it suit a higher purpose or is it a change that I can do without? In the case I outlined above, changing Eni’s gender was, for me, essential to the narrative and I figured out a plausible way to explain the discrepancy in the narrative. Marrying Osyth to Raedwald wasn’t essential – I can find another way to bring about the events they will be involved in without having to change history and therefore, they must, (un)fortunately, remain unmarried, at least to each other!

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