martyn44 (author of The Good and Faithful Servant, in The Phantom Queen Awakes) writes:
Many years ago I was in the Reference section of Acklam branch library (as I often was). I put aside Colonel Churchward’s wonderful farrago concerning the ‘lost continent’ of Mu and picked up a book on folklore. Shortly afterwards I was reading about Ori and Nori, Oin and Gloin. Having been recently so spellbound by the BBC radio production of The Hobbit (with Paul Daneman as Bilbo) that I bunked off school to listen to it I immediately recognised the names, and all the others in the list. ‘Perfesor, you’re not playing the game,’ I thought. ‘You’re supposed to make up the names!’ That Tolkein was a distinguished academic is incontestable, (I’ve always had problems with his declaration that he wrote Lord of The Rings to fill the void that was the mythology of Albion, and he’s never been particularly high on my personal scroll of heroes.) and I dare suggest he believed he was adding at least a veneer of academic respectability to his story by using ‘real’ dwarf names.
Only dwarves aren’t real. They are imaginary, works of fiction along with Cyclops, dragons and the Kraken. Antique works of fiction, to be sure, but fiction nonetheless (I will accept correction if someone cares to introduce me to a dwarf, or the Kraken) Just because they are out of copyright doesn’t make them sacrosanct, and an author up for being sneered at because their take on a character/theme/scene doesn’t chime with whatever version of canon the critic reveres. Which is why I had to bite my tongue when Guinevere appeared as a lightly coloured servant girl in the recent television Merlin rather than the Celtic princess she was. Because she never was. And even if she was, that doesn’t mean later generations cannot reimagine her.
I mean, do you really believe Achilles looked like Brad Pitt?
But what about ‘real’ people? Can we play fast and loose with them? Authors have been seeking to add verisimilitude to their work by descriptions of real places, biographical details of ‘real’ people for quite some time now. Are there limits beyond which we cannot go? Patricia Cornwell accused Walter Sickert of being Jack the Ripper (breezily ignoring his background as a police artist that gave him the material for ‘that’ painting) and could get away with it because Sickert is dead and you cannot libel the dead (presumably the reason for Mohammed al Fayed getting away with his accusations against Prince Philip – the undead in Buck House!) This is an area of potentially very thin ice, but I believe the dead are as fair game as the fictitious. This could be because my current WIP plays somewhat fast and loose with such ‘real’ people as Herbert (Oh, call me George, do) Wells, Superintendent Frederick Abberline and Sir Charles Warren, as well as that other very ‘real’ person, Jack the Ripper. The question is not can we, or should we, but how far should we go?
That, I leave to each of us. What I will say is that ‘reality’ in fiction must fulfil its fictive purpose. Unless it is dramatically, emotionally true, that it ‘really happened’ doesn’t matter. All observers are partial and unreliable, except for us. In our stories we do know our world as well as god knows this one (to borrow a phrase from Bob McKee) If we don’t we short change our readers, who exchange their immediate reality for our imagined ones. They deserve more than tax deductible tourist descriptions and quotations from a dictionary of biography. They deserve the truth.
Just that truth is not necessarily factually true.