Too Real For Fiction?


A Fact Checker Is Born

I’ve always been geeky, more so at some phases of my life than others. Back in the late 90s, when I finally gave in and started internet service for my work computer, I was instantaneously hooked. All that lovely information out there, right at my fingertips! Suddenly, I could easily and quickly access facts about any subject I chose, no matter how obscure.

Besides being geeky, I’ve also always expected authors to know at least basic information about their settings, and other elements of their books. Put a key Civil War battle in the wrong location, call a mare ‘he’, or place a wild animal outside its possible ecological range, and the book turned into a wall-banger. Add the internet, and I could immediately check facts that just didn’t quite ring true.


And apparently, I wasn’t the only one. Today’s reading public is more demanding than ever for accuracy and realism in fiction. We want police procedures to ring true, manufacturer-model-caliber of firearms, medical facts accurate enough for the JAMA, and so on.

As a result of all that, countless readers criticize certain genres for being unrealistic. Make up a creature? Can’t exist, so it’s unrealistic. Alternate history? Yeah, right. A man who treats the woman he loves with respect? Absolutely not!

If you’re going to do something like those things, as an author, you’re often expected to make sure everything else in your book is accurate. No fudging historical details. No bending of physical laws. No hedging of medical details. No liberties with geography. No contriving logic. Well, you can, but someone, probably lots of them, is going to give you grief about it.

The info hound in me is glad for this insistence on accuracy. In part, because it means that as I read, I might be gathering little bits of trivia that could prove useful eventually. Also because I don’t like misinformation being distributed as what someone might mistake for truth.

Creativity v. Real

But the creative part of me wonders just how much realism and accuracy I should expect in fiction. It is, after all, fiction. Inherently not real. Do I really need the author to give the right police code for a kitten up a tree, when the responding officer is going to fall victim to the spree killer? And do I seriously care what kind of suture the surgeon uses to close the gut-spilling, as long as the hero survives it? And what the hell difference does it make whether the germ causing the pandemic is correctly named and classified, if the heroine doesn’t manage to get the cooler with the cure in it across the city so it can be put to use? Do I really care if the heroine’s ball gown is a color that won’t be widely available for another 75 years, as long as she manages to escape the evil countess’s clutches and entice the duke into falling in love with her?


As a reader, why do I get pissed if the author fails to correctly name an obscure object, if the characters are multi-dimensional, the plot interesting, the conflicts exciting, and all the elements of the story well-written? Is it really that important?

I’m not questioning whether the big things should be realistic, things like key battles in the wrong location in a historical novel, or sending low-slung sports cars along heavily rutted logging tracks in a contemporary novel, and that sort of thing.

I’m talking about those little insider details that no one outside a particular field of expertise would know. Do you care that the little container a tattoo artist puts the ink in when tattooing someone is called an ink cap? Or that the narrow band at the top of a horse’s hoof is the coronet? If it doesn’t matter to the story as a whole, do we need our fiction to be that real?

What’s your preference, as a reader? Do you like books filled with excruciatingly real details? Or can you tolerate a little laxness, if the story is good, and otherwise well-written? What are some of the glaring errors you’ve spotted in books?

8 responses to “Too Real For Fiction?

  1. I’d rather the author be a little vague with some details, rather than use them them the wrong way. I don’t know what it is about it, but if an author uses a word like “mare,” I think that they SHOULD know that’s a female horse. If an author doesn’t know about guns, and it’s necessary to the story, either they should educate themselves a bit, or be vague and NOT mention too many details about what kind of firearm is being used. Ah well! Maybe I’m being too critical. 🙂 I do enjoy research.

    Take Care!

  2. I do care. Readers can learn so much from fiction, little details like that tattoo ink you mentioned. It is one of the extra perks of well-written books, that you not only enjoy them, but also glean new and interesting information. As an author, I know it is time consuming, but as I reader, I thank you for that attention to detail.

    • Hi Christi. Most of the time, I care too. I’ve learned sooo many useful things by reading well researched fiction.

      I don’t like when it seems the author is “showing off” by packing so much information in that I feel like a doctoral candidate in the subject. 😀 That either makes the author look like an academic snob, or bogs the story down until it’s lost in all those details.

      The key is picking and choosing carefully, giving just enough accurate detail to bring the reader all the way into the story world, without overwhelming the story.

  3. You know, Kenra, sometimes authors like the late Michael Crichton put so much technical information into their prose that I almost didn’t care anymore; however, I suppose that was partly the point – so we wouldn’t question that dinosaurs could be cloned, for example. I do like some technical data or flashes of the author’s expertise or good research. It brings a certain realism to the fiction, whether fantastical or near-reality. I like some, but if too much, I tend to skim over those details.


    • Hi James. With an author of the caliber of Michael Crichton, you’re probably right about the point of all those technical details. Helping the reader suspend disbelief can be done in so many ways, and good writers use different techniques deliberately to create such effects.

      Lesser authors, though, might pack all that information in there just to exhibit their expertise, or because they just don’t know better. Others will try to cover up plot holes and poor writing with truck loads of unimportant facts.

  4. I’ve heard a lot of professionals say that they can’t read books set in their field of expertise. Personally, I like to have enough details that the story feels realistic but not so many that they overwhelm the story.

    • Hi Eleri. I’ve heard the same thing, and it makes perfect sense to me. If the author happened to be knowledgeable, it would be like talking to a colleague. If the author were lazy about the research, most people would be annoyed, at the very least.

      When I worked with horses on a daily basis, and was confident in my methods, I couldn’t stand books that horses played a significant role in. Unfailingly, the author either had different philosophies than I, or was infuriatingly ignorant.

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