Taking Artistic License

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I recently saw this video correcting fantasy misconceptions about medieval weapons, such as bows being suitable for weaker characters and archers being able to hold a fully drawn longbow for ages.

There’s a lot of useful information, and it does add realism to fantasy or historical fiction if an archer strains to hold a shot.

But how accurate does fiction have to be, and when is it okay to take artistic license?

Medical dramas often show defibrillators used to restart hearts, but in reality they’re used to resynchronise an irregular heartbeat, not start it from flat-line. The myth is so established, however, that it might be counterproductive for the reader’s experience to try to push back on it.

A quick defibrillator scene we all already understand, that gets right to the character drama, may be better than a more factual scene which takes attention away from the ‘will they make it!’ tension to make the reader/viewer process new medical knowledge. Showing CPR breaking ribs might also be inappropriate for tone.

And back to the medieval context, Jo Walton’s Tiffany Problem describes a tension between historical fact and public perception – Tiffany was a real medieval name, but writers can’t use it.

It’s a variant of Theophania. It appears in 12th century documents from Britain and France, and you cannot give it as a name to a character in a historical or fantasy setting because it looks too horribly modern.

Realism doesn’t work so well if the reader doesn’t see it as realistic. If you want or need to buck a common misconception in your writing, you need to be aware of how the reader could react. It might be necessary to find some way to help the new information go down.

If the protagonist is a medical student, it’s natural for them to learn what defibrillators are and aren’t really used for. This could be through exposition or a lecture scene, or through something more dramatic and less clunky. That could be a scene where a doctor tries to resuscitate someone, the student is shocked by how intense it actually is, and sees someone die for the first time.

In another Shadiversity video he explains why torches weren’t used for indoor lighting in the way we usually imagine. The reality could be shown without special fuss, since nobody would instinctively find rushlights or the real use of sconces ‘unrealistic’. Showing the soot under a torch as it is used could be a great bit of detail. There isn’t a big tension there between perception and reality. However, if a character must be named Tiffany for some reason, that will need a bit of explanation to be accepted.

Myths can be useful narrative devices, but I think there’s a risk of relying on ones that have become recognised tropes. The 10% myth has been used so much in sci-fi involving characters ‘getting access to 100% of their brains’ that it isn’t unique any more. When using a myth for a narrative device, it has to do more than allow the story to happen. What possibilities does it raise? How effective is it at suspending disbelief? How easy is it to understand?

Where there’s tension between reality and common beliefs, knowing when and how to draw from research or to take artistic license can be tricky. Realism and reality don’t always match, and what fits the textbook doesn’t always fit the needs of a scene.

2 thoughts on “Taking Artistic License

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