Monday, 17 November 2014

Facts in Fiction

I'm usually not a fan of talking about stories before I've written them. Not only does this provide spoilers, but it's very silly to talk about something I haven't written yet, as though that matters in the slightest. There are billions of stories I haven't written, if I could speak about them as though I'd written them, then why even bother writing them at all?
But I make an exception in this case. Firstly, because I'm not entirely sure if I will write this story, it's just an idea. But secondly, because the very things I find myself dealing with in the conception of this story are what I want to talk about today, regarding the way we show facts in fiction. Because fiction is, in simplest terms, a lie. It's not real, and it didn't happen. But nonetheless fiction can be based on reality, inspired by reality & most importantly, it can influence the real world by teaching people with its words. The Word of the Day is: 'REALISM'

Realism /reeəlizəm/ n. 1. The tendency to face facts and deal with things as they really are, rather than as they exist in some ideal world. 2. The taking of a practical view in human problems rather than one based on principles of right and wrong. 3. The treatment of subjects in literature or art with faithfulness to the nature or to real life (opposed to idealism): Hogarth is a master of realism.

I am working on the next chapter of Duke Forever. This one was inspired by something my beautiful muse, dear Beloved, suggested to me. But in the previous (official) chapter, I made a little reference to a story I might want to write later - that's something I like to do with this blogserial, layers upon layers of references so that readers can have fun unravelling them.
See, in the beginning, the Duke asks Edison where, in history or destiny, he would want to travel to, and Edison says he wants to find the answer to "The most famous, unsolved mysteries in the history of the English police force.”
This, you see, is a little, fun reference to Jack the Ripper, and Edison, as a curious, do-gooder policeman, wants to know the answer. I thought that was a fun reference to lead into that story. But see, after I started to think about it, I started to overthink about it and realized that it could be a fun chapter, Edison vs. The Ripper; and since this is when Edison really would want to go in time (it makes the most sense for his character), the next time the Duke asks Edison to choose, he will have that same answer, leading into this Ripper story.

So, midway through writing Chapter 9, I started working on this other story idea, and I did some research. Now, the obvious problem was that I didn't actually know who Jack the Ripper was. I could write around that issue, but I figured I ought to look it up, so that I could at least have some suspects, or someone that made the most sense in canon. So, I looked up all the suspects and I tried to see if one of them was more or less viable an answer. I didn't find one, but I made a little short-list [For the record, this is a very complicated case; and if you look it up, there are some grisly images on Wikipedia].
But then, I thought, since Doctor Who has been around for ages, surely by now, they've had the Doctor meet the Ripper. I didn't think they'd do such a morbid story; but I didn't want to risk annulling my story by referencing inaccurate canon anyway. So, to be sure, I looked it up. Thankfully, there's been no Jack the Ripper TV story. Granted, there's some Doctor Who novels about it, but in regards to Duke Forever, I consider those "Shrödinger's Canon", they both do and don't exist unless and until the story acknowledges or debunks them.
However, there is one very important mention of Jack the Ripper in the TV show, and that's in the Episode "A Good Man Goes to War". In the beginning, Madame Vastra declares that she has killed Jack the Ripper. That's cool, and I like the idea of bringing my stories closer to the canon of the show, it's a fun challenge.
However, in the beginning of that episode - in the clip when we first meet Madame Vastra, there's a subtitle on the screen which reads:
LONDON, 1888 A.D.
This is troublesome . . . see, in the clip, Vastra says she killed Ripper, which means these two facts together make a claim about Jack the Ripper, which is:
  "The Man who would be 'Jack' died in 1888."
This is kind of cool for me, because it heavily narrows down my list of suspects. However, at the same time, it creates a terrible problem. See, it narrows down the list too much, because there's only one Jack the Ripper suspect who died in 1888, and that is Montague John Druitt. However, most damningly, that poor, unfortunate sod is, by all accounts, completely innocent. The only reason he was even a suspect was because he was once in an asylum for mental issues (hallucinations and self-harm) and because he committed suicide after the last "official" Jack the Ripper murder, supposedly explaining why victims stopped dying.

This gave me something of a dilemma. See, Mr Druitt was a real guy, Jack the Ripper is a real case with several killed and mutilated victims and not only that, but this man is undoubtedly innocent. His connection to the murders is tenuous at best, and I have every reason to believe that he was a troubled soul with no access to proper mental health facilities who simple killed himself to escape the madness. It's most unjust for me, even two centuries later, to further slander his name by pinning these ghastly murders on him.
Of course, I'm not the only one. The TV series Sanctuary includes a Jack the Ripper character by the name of "John Druitt", and the film From Hell is basically a Masonic/royal conspiracy theory blaming the queen's doctor, "William Withey Gull", even though he was in his 70s at the time and there's no evidence to link him to it. These people were innocent, yet blamed for the murders.
However, to measure yourself by the standards of others is to use a faulty measuring stick, and just because other people feel free to blame others out of ignorance, that doesn't mean that I will allow myself to. But, at the same time, I have that Golden Rule: Canon is King.
According to Dr Who canon and history, I am supposed to blame John Druitt, but do I have to repeat the mistakes of my predecessor for the sake of canon?
This is my dilemma.

See, I believe that fiction is supposed to teach, and even if something is entirely false, you should still try to write it in such a way that people learn something. Like, sure, talking wolves don't exist; but in its own way, Little Red Riding Hood teaches readers that they shouldn't talk to strangers. Even if it's fictional, the ways in which the fiction reflects on the real world aspects allows readers to learn something.
There are many things which I've learned, not only regarding talking to strangers, but also about culture, history, literature, morality, ethics & philosophy because of what I've read in fiction. Sometimes this is knowledge that I've inferred, but oftentimes, it's something I've come to understand through the demonstration which the story provides.

So, if people were to read this Jack the Ripper story of mine, they may choose to believe that I'm a better armchair detective than those other people which have tackled the case and therefore choose to believe this utter falsehood which I would be forced to write. Now, yes, of course I've given my disclaimer now, haven't I? So, if I do write this story, hopefully people will know "No, it wasn't really Montgomery J. Druitt", so there's not much worry of that. For the record, a much more likely candidate is Aaron Kosminski, since he's been linked to murders with DNA evidence discovered of late (but even that's unsure, since some people find the evidence doubtful; so feel free to dive in and look for the answer yourself, if you want).
But that's just this story, what about the rest? What about the other stories I write, many of which will deal with realworld places, people & objects.

For instance, when writing the previous Duke story, Bloodbath, I had some trouble with Elizabeth Báthory. I tried to make her as accurate as possible - even using her real name Erzsébet, rather than the Anglicized name, but for starters, I made the assumption that she would be a sociopath - that's not proven at all, it's just what I believed made sense for her character.
In stories like "Furby, Herbie & Kirby in the Starlight Derby", even though I tried my best to stay true to the canon of those characters and even to the geology of Area 51, California & the area around the Golden Gate Bridge, it's not all perfect. I portrayed the government agents as antagonistic, and made up all kinds of crap to make them more suitable in that manner; including shooting a harmless Furby.

On the one hand, most people can tell what's been embellished for the sake of fiction and information on Báthory, the N.S.A. & even Jack the Ripper are freely available, if they want to look it up the actual facts. But, at the same time, some people can't tell what's been embellished for fiction; and will choose to believe your fiction rather than reality, especially if it's easier to understand what you've seen/read with your own eyes than to look for the truth yourself.
Just because the blame is shared doesn't mean I can take a step back and ignore my responsibilities, as a writer, to keeping stories as close to real as possible, for the sake of my reader's experience. So, where do you draw the line? Of course fiction is fictitious, but where are the truths which should not be ignored?

To be honest, I think some of this comes down to writing. In the case of historical characters, I think that there are ways of making the line between fact and fiction more obvious, by going to the extreme and giving a fictional reason for their unrealistic actions or characteristics. Also, if your story is inspired by reality, but requires more than a few adjustments to history for it to work, perhaps create a character that is them, but by some other name. If you're really not sure, perhaps just have the characters discuss the truth amongst themselves.

But I think after all this talk, I might have to suggest a new rule. When it comes to writing, and creating fiction, to ensure the greatest story you can: Don't Lie to Me.
A simple but effective rule. If you know something is untrue or impossible, don't write it into your story. If you have to, then that's simple enough, make sure you justify it in your story, explain why it's different from reality.
Of course, not every story is realistic, some go for a more allegorical/idealistic style, and that's fine; and if you genuinely don't know, of course that's fine too. I'm just saying that, if you know the truth - or can easily discover the truth - about an element of your story, make sure that you're not accidentally miseducating people. After all, Wikipedia is right there if you don't know the truth, and if you have to lie to people, there's always some way of justifying it.

In the case of my Ripper story, if I write it at all, I think I'll find an alien excuse to justify my historical inaccuracies while also maintaining canon. But for the rest of you, just rattle your brain for a while. You've got quite the imagination, don't be afraid to use it, you'll come up with something.

I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, and until next time, consider this: If Art Imitates Life and Life Imitates Art, then how could Truth ever be stranger than Fiction?

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