Selective Accuracy in Fantasy

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Some guy on the Daily Wire reviewing Netflix’s The Witcher: ‘No woman can fight with a sword. Zero women can fight with a sword.’

His complaint is, by the way, inaccurate. Many people have brought up Julie d’Aubigny, a bi opera singer/swordswoman who – among other adventures – attended a ball dressed as a man, kissed a woman, got challenged to a duel over it by three men, beat them all in succession, then went back to the ball.

Everybody knows that, on average, men have a strength advantage. But that’s an average, and besides skill in weaponry is supposed to make it possible to defeat someone who may be stronger than you. His reference to a ‘5 to 10-pound sword’ is also a joke, considering even claymores were around 5.5lb, with most swords much lighter.

More importantly, fantasy isn’t real. That’s sort of the point. Why is this fairly mundane area the point where his suspended disbelief snaps?

In Taking Artistic License I considered times when strict accuracy may or may not be convincing or entertaining. But there seems to be a particular trend for selective demands for accuracy in fantasy, based in reinforcing certain social attitudes. This can be at the expense of actual accuracy, or represent an arbitrary block on imagination:

‘But this historical period…’ Are you absolutely sure? Really, no foreign traders or anything? Nobody’s in the closet? You might be right, in which case fair enough. But if your version of Ancient Greece is completely straight, your research slipped up somewhere.

‘Ah, but in my fictional world of…’ So your worldbuilding has the full details of a steampunk society powered by burning the blubber of sky-whales – daily life, ecology, politics, history, five paragraphs about perfumes made using sky-whale bile. But you can’t (or didn’t choose to) imagine [multiple demographics or alternative social attitudes]

Samantha Shannon pins this down in her essay:

[E]ven in fictional worlds, the oppressed must remain oppressed. Any attempt to do otherwise is evidence of liberal fragility, box ticking, the sanitization of history or the shoehorning of unwelcome “politics” into entertainment. […]

It is typical that the same critics often base “historical accuracy”—both in historical and fantastical stories—on the fiction of a white and heteronormative past. In their minds, people of color, queer people and powerful women only had the nerve to exist in the last couple of centuries. […]

Creators can and have used fantasy to highlight both modern and historical inequalities to great effect, and they must always have the opportunity and space to do that—but, lest we forget, fantasy is not history, and is therefore not beholden to it. It can be exhausting to read about the same racist, homophobic and sexist worlds over and over again.

Fantasy as a genre is rooted in being able to picture radically different realities, where not only history and geography, but the laws of reality itself, can be reshaped from the ground up. So to me there’s something very petty about insisting that issues such as gender have to match with the comparable real-world place and time.

I’m of course not saying that every work of fiction has to be actively progressive, or that there aren’t ham-fisted ways of trying to be that can detract from entertainment or believability. But I can’t relate to the mindset where things like a medieval society being cool with gay people are less believable, and need more justification, than the dragon flying overhead or the dead raised from their graves.

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.

Franzen’s 10 Rules: You What, Mate?

Jonathan Franzen has suggested 10 rules for novelists. Some of his points are quite interesting, some are more questionable, and some seem to be from fortune cookies. Let’s take a look!

1) The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.

OK. This sounds like a good perspective, letting readers have their reactions to the text without swooping in with NO WHAT I MEANT WAS or IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT YOU’RE TOO DUMB TO GET IT. It’s a bit vague though.

2) Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.

Well, getting outside comfort zones and exploring topics and styles is a good thing to do. But can we not reinforce the whole ‘starving artist’ thing? Poverty for the sake of art isn’t romantic. Unfortunately, people need cash.

3) Never use the word then as a conjunction—we have and for this purpose. Substituting then is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many ands on the page.

Haha, no.

‘Then’ does have a subtly different meaning from ‘and’. ‘The character did this, then did that’ is actually distinct from ‘The character did this, and did that.’ The former places more emphasis on only one thing happening at a time, each being fully finished before starting the next; while with the latter the character could be multitasking.

I take the point that conjunctions can be misused to paper over awkwardness, perceived or real. The solution isn’t to ban certain conjunctions.

4) Write in third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.

The nugget of insight here is that a first-person narrative needs a strong voice to bring the character to life. However, POV can’t be reduced to a sentence.

Here’s a whole post I wrote on it. Here’s one by Michael James, K.M. Allan , Marcha,  M.L. Davis, and Meg Dowell.

5) When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

When I’m reading something that obviously had good research behind it, I don’t appreciate it less because the author used google. It would be impressive if they got their research by sneaking into the hidden catacombs under the Vatican, fighting off corrupt cardinals perverting the power of a fragment of the True Cross and the undead Templar knights raised using it… but it doesn’t make the actual book any better than if they got the same information online or in a library.

6) The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.

Some element of the writer is bound to come up in what they write, but this seems taken a bit far for the sake of a hot take. Probably some of Kafka’s thoughts and life experience are in there, but Anne Frank’s diary or Russell Brand’s Booky Wook is likely more autobiographical than a story about a dude turning into a giant beetle.

It is a cool story – you can read it here.

7) You see more sitting still than chasing after.

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8) It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

The internet can be procrastination, yes, but… luddite much? Also, ‘his workplace’. Huh. Either that second X chromosome has the useful ‘no, get off twitter you’re meant to be writing’ gene, or women don’t write, or something.

9) Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

I agree. Verbs pulled from a thesaurus can be a lazy way to try to give an event more pizzaz without actually presenting it differently. The important word here is ‘seldom’ – thinking back to Writing Tips Are Just Suggestions. So long as we don’t go mad here, this is solid advice.

10) You have to love before you can be relentless.

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