How Realistic Should Fiction Be?

Reality v FictionFictional stories feature imaginary events and characters, whom writers often assert are nothing more than “purely coincidental” resemblances “to real persons, living or dead” in a generic disclaimer designed to avert defamation lawsuits. (Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater began with the brilliant parody, “All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental, and should not be construed.”)

Is it acceptable for authors of novels and screenplays to write whatever they want, no matter how inaccurate and unrealistic?

Most recently, this issue came into the spotlight as a result of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a movie that African American Studies professor Jelani Cobb claims “plays fast and loose with history,” by, for example, downplaying the prevalence and significance of slave resistance.  In his piece that appeared yesterday in The New Yorker, Cobb argues that “there are risks implicit in doing this with a film about slavery.”  He also raises an interesting criticism of Tarantino’s previous work, Inglourious Basterds (sic), which Russians see “not as a revenge fantasy but as an attempt to further whitewash their role in Hitler’s demise.”

I am unfamiliar with these movies (and with three small children, I can’t remember the last time I went to a movie theater), but similar criticisms apply to the inaccurate portrayals of history and current reality in novels, such as those that misapply the law (even if I otherwise liked the book), gloss over the seriousness of domestic violence, or sugarcoat medical diagnoses.

In defense of these works, people argue, in essence, that it’s all fiction, to which Cobb replies: while fiction is not reality, the “entire appeal of the former is its capacity to shed light on how we understand the latter.”

I agree, and I hope that a book that distorts the truth would do so in a way that makes it clear that it is more fiction than reality. For example, no one would believe that such farcical tales as Forrest Gump or The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared are accurate portrayals of history. In other cases, it may not be so obvious, meaning that those works could actually dumb down its readers.


  1. I really enjoyed Inglorious Basterds and as a Jewish person I didn’t find it remotely offensive. The whole plot is so ridiculous I don’t see how anyone could take it seriously. Stories like Inglorious Basterd’s and the 100 Year Old man aren’t intended to be a history lesson but that being said you can learn basic pieces of history from them, like the Nazis occupied France in WW2 and that there was a race to make the first nuclear bomb. But that is as much information as you can take. Equally, all historical fiction (realistic or not) has an agenda, at least when the plot is ridiculous you’re less likely to mistake a story for history.

  2. As an author of two fantasy fiction novels written for a mature audience, I have a great deal of flexibility to bend truth and reality. Still, I try to keep the rules of psychology and laws of physics as believable as possible. Some critics have liked this, others have not.

    With that said, I deeply resent what Hollywood is doing. I watched 40-minutes of Inglorious Basterds and was so offended by the misrepresentation of that horrible time that I refuse to waste any money on Django. Tarantino is only catering to what the audience will accept, and clearly he has a giant market of people wanting an altered truth.

    It is true that fiction is an escape, and both the above mentioned movies are meant as fantastical. We can go back in film history to John Wayne’s The Green Berets which was an awful depiction of the U.S.’s role in Vietnam, or Sly Stallone’s Rambo 3 as Veteran John Rambo helps Afghan rebels send the Russian’s packing.

    Fantasy is meant as fun, but sometimes altering the truth isn’t.
    (Thank you for the soap-box. 😀 )

    1. I agree- altering the truth isn’t always fun! It seems like Tarantino has managed to offended many people with his depictions of World War II and slave resistance. I haven’t seen either film, so I’ll keep my comments on it to a minimum, but it concerns me when such depictions are based on potentially harmful stereotypes. It is sad that the market seems to want this.

      As for the varied reaction to your respect for psychology and the laws of physics in your books, I guess you can’t please everyone! I suppose more people who read fantasy novels expect a greater deviation from reality than those who read other genres.

  3. Interesting discussion, which is probably the point of literature. From my days as an English major I remember these discussions in class, often concerned about the appropriation of voice. These were the concerns of disenfranchised points of view (i.e. colonialism, feminism, queer theory). We never resolved that nagging question about encouraging or permitting authors to trespass into areas they cannot represent accurately or fairly. At what point do we invoke censorship or even a heavy editorial hand? We asked things like if a man can be permitted to write from the point of view of woman, should Europeans speak for First Nations people, and can a straight person have any authority about the social realities of a person who is gay? These are serious ethical concerns.

    As a writer, I have to remind myself that the creation of metaphor is only partly made by the writer. It is up to the reader and her/his complicated set of experiences, education, and point of view to discover the meaning of the metaphor. I suppose this is our greater worry, the process of interpretation and how it can feed radical or extremist thinking.

    Literary theorist Northrop Frye suggested that the purpose of literature was to explore our possibilities, to educate our imaginations. As a parent, I prefer my children to risk encountering ‘untrue’ stories on occassion. I appreciate that literature teaches them to ask questions, to explore, and to disagree with authorial voices. Skeptisim is part of critical thinking, a skill most of us value in the real world (after all, we don’t want to live in perpetual gullibility). As the discussion here insists, we are all educating ourselves as we read and question. Here are some words from Frye: “Nobody is capable of free speech unless he knows how to use language, and such knowledge is not a gift: it has to be learned and worked at.”

    Thanks for the post, as it is always a pleasure to be invited to think.

    1. You raise many important and interesting points. In particular, I appreciate that you touch on the issue of censorship by asking, “At what point do we invoke censorship or even a heavy editorial hand?” If I were part of the publishing process, I would probably turn down many misleading works, particularly if it looks under-researched or based on offensive stereotypes. I don’t care if the prose is beautiful if the substance is bad. That’s a level of censorship, but not one that stops that person from getting their work into the marketplace in other ways. All it means is that I would decline to be part of it. I would take greater issue with governmental bodies, like school boards, censoring these works. My hope is that when misleading movies or books are part of school curricula or in libraries, it would invite discussion and an opportunity for critical thinking, as you say.

      1. Your comments remind me of how many people can be involved in the process of telling one story. Sometimes I feel a little uncomfortable with the self-publishing and social media outlets, specifically because they lack mediation of multiple points of view that engange in discussion before the material becomes public. Not that ‘writing by committee’ always protects us from offense or misrepresentation. After all, there was a time when the promotion of human rights was considered offensive (for those with money and power) and equality was deemed to misrepresent the true nature of human society. Activists found voice in self-publishing formats (such as historical pamphlet literature) and risked much to put forth their ideas.

        1. I can understand your concerns about blogs and self-published works, particularly if the authors did not have good critique partners, beta readers, and editors. I am the only person responsible for what appears on my blog, but the “check” on it comes from other bloggers and commenters who contribute to the discussion. If a blogger refuses to approve dissenting viewpoints, people are always free to post critical responses on their own blogs.

          In many ways, I am much more concerned about misleading fiction that is published traditionally because of the “approval” of the establishment and its larger platform, which gives those works the ability to sway a much larger audience than most self-published works or small time blogs can. I had once thought that the traditional publishing route would produce better products, but it’s hit or miss. Many of the products are wonderful, but some are not. We have to read everything with a critical eye.

          Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

          1. Thanks for this conversation. Discussing this has helped me address anxiety I feel over one of my projects in which historical accuracy is unclear and requires some speculation; I think the uncertainity of knowing “truth” can perhaps be part of the writing in a way I hadn’t considered before. Even so, in the end, I know that I really don’t want to risk credibility by self-publishing, not to my reputation or to the subject.

            1. Good luck with your project! I have more faith in self-publishing avenues than you do, but it’s definitely not for everyone and your concerns are understandable. Self-published books have more to prove than traditionally published ones, but there are some very good ones out there that shouldn’t be ignored simply because they were self-published.

              1. I don’t disagree with you in general, because I think we have our areas of reliable expertise and we can speak to that without mediating discussion through an editor. Some conversations can be complicated, and might need private discussion (like a check against bias or inaccuracy) before entering public debate. Perhaps this circles back to the original post, asking how relaistic should fiction be? I suspect I lean toward a consideration of the medium itself as one of several factors in considering reliability.

  4. An interesting topic that sparked equally interesting comments. Must admit I’ve never given the issue much thought; to me, the division between fiction and non-fiction is clearcut.

    1. Thanks. I generally agree with you, except to say that there are times when a book or a movie is obviously fiction but still skews the way we see the real world or history. Based on the description in Cobb’s piece, “Django Unchained,” may be a good example: everyone knows that Django didn’t actually exist (we know he’s a fictional character), but they may leave the movie thinking that slave resistance was less common than it actually was in American history because of the way it was portrayed in this movie. In the end, this view could bolster racial stereotypes in addition to changing the way we feel about our history.

        1. Yes, but that doesn’t excuse intentional or careless inaccuracies. I am talking about inaccuracies inappropriately changing the way we see our history.

  5. I think that artistic license is absolutely fine in works of fiction. I have just finished reading The Hundred Year Old Man – and I thought it was entirely obvious that the ‘historical’ references were obviously based on true events but totally fictional.

    Personally, I think if people are daft enough to knowingly watch or read works of fiction and then interpret the stories within as fact, then they have bigger problems to contend with!

    If you want to learn about history, read a history book or watch a documentary – if you want to be entertained, go for fiction, but take everything within as just that!

    1. I really enjoyed The 100-Year-Old Man! I agree that it was very obvious that it was fictional, but there are other works of fiction that are more subtle. For instance, pulling an example from a different genre, “Marcelo in the Real World” presents a questionable view of some legal concepts that could skew how readers feel about the legal system (I link to my review in the post, as a book the misconstrues the law). The fact that the author is a lawyer could make it more likely that readers will think the book portrays a realistic fictional framework. I still enjoyed the book (and thought it should be required reading in law school!), but it could have been better.

  6. I agree with Cobb. People that know very little of historical events get misled into thinking that history is what they see in movies. Sure it probably makes for better entertainment with creative license, but playing loose like that in effect, changes the way we view these events and how generations of people will see them in the future.

    1. Exactly! I believe that readers expect that authors have done their research, making them think that even fictional works have truth to them. Authors can deviate from reality, but they should make it clear by spelling out the rules of their fictional universes.

    1. It is sad! People seem to expect that their books educate them, even when it’s meant as entertainment. You can’t believe everything you read, not even if it’s published in a peer-reviewed science journal.

  7. Excellent topic. I think historical fiction and “regular” fiction are two different things. When writing regular fiction, you can be as fantastical as you want. With historical fiction, it is a fine line between what you deem as fiction and what you deem as historical. Some examples, like Tarantino, seem to give the basics (Hitler’s regime, the setting) as the historical fiction, while the rest is fiction. While I do not believe in censorship and would never want there to be official rules that writers had to follow for fiction, we are all influenced by what we see. It is the audience’s responsibility to not rely exclusively on fiction to be informed of historical events. The more we become exposed to inaccurate depictions of the past, the easier it becomes to believe these depictions. I think the perception of the past is, or can be, warped by the present.

    1. Thank you! With historical fiction, it’s the historical context in which the fictional events and interactions take place that should be as accurate as possible (there are different interpretations of history, too, and a lot we do not know, which gives author leeway).

      With other fiction, if isn’t fantasy, then I expect a realistic framework. For example, if a women’s fiction novel deals with a dispute over custody rights to embryos, then I would hope that the author has some understanding of the applicable laws. Kerry Reichs did this well in her novel, “What You Wish For,” as I discuss here:

      Authors are free to veer away from the realistic framework, but they should make it clear by stating what the new parameters are in their fictional setting. If left unsaid, then I will assume it’s meant to be more realistic.

  8. I like reading nonfiction mostly, but in regards to film- I like violent films-shoot them up type. I guess I am nuts that way. I like Taratino, but I understand the dilemma he may be creating by making films about such controversial subjects. A person would really need to understand that his films are not REAL even if based off of a real part of history. This is a touchy subject!

  9. I like books that have a good foundation in their history so as to make the reader think that they are possible or probable. A good example for me is A.S. Byatt Possession or even her recent novel The Children’s Book. I also enjoyed Lake of Dreams by Kim Edwards. But I also know that these books are not factual and are fiction. The author does the research and makes the reader wish they were true. I have a problem with authors that fabricate their material and then pass it off as real, such as the author of Three Cups of Tea. Probably one reason that I don’t generally read non-fiction (and I haven’t read Three Cups of Tea either).

    1. Yeah, doing research is key! Readers expect that authors, even authors of fiction, have done their research into the context in which their fictional stories take place. That’s why these books can skew our understanding of history–we think authors know what they’re writing about!

  10. I agree with the idea that if you’re calling it a novel based on fact, then it’s a contract you should honor. It’s the same reason I can’t stand Michael Moore movies. He claims they’re documentaries, when really they’re propaganda for his opinion (trick editing to make false statements, etc.) I’m not opposed to him making these movies, I’m just opposed to him pretending they’re actually documentaries. I think we should be forthcoming about our intentions with our mediums, be they books, movies, whatever. But like lovesandhates said, it’s up to the consumer of these mediums to discover whether it’s a work of fiction.

    Great thought-provoking post as always.

    1. People may know that what they are reading or watching is a work of fiction, but they may believe it has more truth to it than it does, and there are real risks, such as misunderstanding slavery (and reinforcing racial stereotypes) or skewing juries (as many people believe shows like CSI do). Authors are free to do whatever they want with their books, but it’s important to label it appropriately — perhaps more works of fiction should be labeled “Fantasy”!

  11. I think the real issue is when a fictional novel claims that it’s based on fact, or otherwise portrays the subject matter to be fact when it’s not but could be (like some recently featured Operah Book Club novels). I enjoy my fiction to be possible but with an imaginative spin–yes, I know Harry Potter isn’t real, but it felt that it could be. There’s others that are outlandish, like high fantasies, that I just can’t get into it. That’s just me though.

    1. I agree that it’s particularly problematic when a book is disingenuously billed as “based on fact.” I give fantasy a free pass to be as unrealistic as possible, but I expect other genres to stay true to a realistic context.

  12. Writers tend to be, as a group, fairly intelligent individuals. When they read something, they automatically know if it’s AU (alternate universe), a fantasy, science fiction, or the like. Some less than discerning readers may not be able to recognize the difference between real life and the other myriad genres only pretending to be in order to tell a story.

    Is it the fiction writers responsibility to teach or is it to entertain? Some, while writing about history or whose stories revolve around a topic (like space travel or chemistry or truffle hunting, etc.), do both. While I research for my books and make the facts I present as authentic as possible, I mostly write for entertainment.

    An interesting topic, as always. Thanks!

    1. I agree. I wouldn’t want to blame authors for misleading their readers about the real world–it is fiction–but entertainment can have real life consequences (such as the CSI effect on juries). Authors should be aware of it.

      1. Good point. People watch TV and think those shows are factual. While I’m sure many try to be by hiring a consultant, they often don’t have time to get it 100% right. Also, things change quickly. By the time the show airs, the things presented as facts may have already changed.

        1. Plus, often, the reality of those types of investigations isn’t compelling enough for TV. Who would watch if the case doesn’t get solved in a clear cut way, if at all?

          This conversation reminds me of a funny skit from That Mitchell and Webb Look about a medical drama with “an emphasis on drama, rather than medicine”:

    1. You may be right. Your comment has me thinking about the different types of inaccuracies. Some seem intentional and part of the plot, while others seem careless/misguided. Both could mislead readers. So, while it may not be an author’s responsibility to portray history or reality accurately, they are risking negative reviews when it looks like they didn’t do their research.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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