Getting The Details Right In Fiction
Striving for accuracy and 'truthiness' in fantasy settings.
The other day, I was reading a fantasy heist novel in which a thief is about to scale a stone wall in order to infiltrate a society party. I winced when I read that he was donning gloves before beginning his ascent, but I told myself that maybe they were merely part of his formal wear and that the wall was easy enough to climb that it didn’t matter if he was wearing gloves or not. But no, the thief climbs the supposedly difficult-to-ascend wall, perches on top for a moment to wish he had a rope to let him descend faster, then climbs down the far side. Where he removes his gloves and stashes them in some bushes. Meanwhile, I was rolling my eyes so hard I was worried I was going to strain something so badly they’d get stuck and I’d have to spend the rest of my life tilting my head awkwardly if I wanted to look anywhere but straight up. It’s okay if that description of a climbing scene doesn’t bother you. Most of you have probably never climbed outside of a climbing gym, and even if you’ve done that, you probably haven’t thought much about the practical realities of climbing a stone wall in the dark.
Unfortunately for me, I have spent a lot of time doing and thinking about those things. Though I don’t climb much these days, I fell in love with the sport as a teenager and spent a number of years as a full-time climbing bum back in the days when the sport was a niche activity for misfits and dirtbags. We even used to climb buildings around the university campus when we were bored, so I have uniquely specific experience with climbing stone walls like the kind found in most fantasy novels. For a long time, my entire life revolved around climbing, so when I see it portrayed inaccurately in fiction, I can’t help but get a little annoyed. In the past few years, climbing has burst into the mainstream consciousness with films like Free Solo and climbing’s inclusion in the Olympics, but even so, the average writer doesn’t seem to have much of a clue how any of it works. I bet 99% of you reading this have a climbing gym within an hour’s drive of where you live, but for some reason, the average fantasy author who decides to include a climbing scene in their novel couldn’t be bothered to even call the place up to ask for advice on how to portray climbing with even a vague approximation of accuracy let alone actually going to the gym to try it for themselves.
And hey, I get it. I’m not trying to suggest that every author should go out and train extensively until they can write about everything with the knowledge of an expert. Climbing is my personal bugbear, so when I see it written poorly, I shake my head and send quotes to my climber friends so we can laugh about it together. Like the time I read about a couple of thieves hammering metal pins into the seams of a tower so they’d have a place to clip their safety ropes. It’s obvious to me in there that the author tried to do some research, because metal pitons are still hammered into thin cracks in the wall to this day. But what they completely failed to account for is that hammering a metal pin into stone is so ear-splittingly loud it would give them away before they managed to clip themselves into the first piton. And in regards to that first example of putting on gloves? Trying to climb with gloves is like smearing butter on your boots for better traction on ice. It’s like using bananas for ice axes while climbing a frozen waterfall. It’s like a baseball player wearing oven mitts instead of batting gloves. Anything that can be easily climbed with gloves is probably simple enough that a small child could do it. And not to nitpick, but climbing with a short length of rope coiled on one’s back is a totally normal thing to do. If the thief wanted the rope so badly, what’s preventing them from taking it with them if they’re already stashing their ridiculous gloves in a bush anyway?
So why does any of this even matter? Authors get things wrong all the time. Many of us do our best to research things in which we don’t have personal experience and most readers aren’t going to notice if we don’t get the details a hundred percent right. I’m sure there are plenty of little details I’ve messed up over the years that only a handful of readers noticed. The problem is that as writers—especially within the fantasy genre—immersion is our bread and butter. We want to pull you into our stories deeply enough that the fantastical elements we’ve invented out of whole cloth feel entirely possible and believable. Notice I didn’t write ‘realistic’ there. Realism is a tricky word in fiction. Stephen Colbert calls it truthiness. In the context of story, our aim is often to create something that feels true in the moment even though it’s not based in any reality that we know or have experienced. Magic systems are a classic example of making something feel possible even if it’s not realistic. You’ve probably never seen anyone conjure magic in real life, but when it’s written well in fiction it should feel like it makes perfect sense within the context of the world. The moment something stops making sense is the moment a reader is wrenched from the narrative. As writers, we want you so invested and immersed in our stories that you feel as if you’re living the events yourself or at the very least having them told to you by a charismatic friend. What we don’t want is for you to step outside of the story to wrinkle your eyebrows at something that feels so jarringly wrong that you’re fixating on the error instead of floating dreamily along in the river of story in which you’d until that moment been happily swimming.
John Bradley, who plays Samwell Tarly in HBO’s Game of Thrones, was once asked why his character hadn’t lost any weight after spending so much time north of the wall where he’s short on food and expending massive amounts of calories from walking and trying not to freeze to death. He responded with, “In a show where there are dragons, zombies... there's a woman who gives birth to a cloud! And the one thing that you can't buy and don't get is me being a bit podgy!”
This is a terrible answer. Dragons, zombies, and the woman who gives birth to a cloud are part of the framework that was carefully crafted to feel possible within the scope of Westeros’s magic fantasy. There is an expectation that unless otherwise at least vaguely explained as an exception, the basic rules of our world match those of a fictional world. Water is still wet, fire is still hot, gravity works the same way, and if someone doesn’t eat, they lose weight. The mere existence of dragons doesn’t suddenly invalidate every other basic law of nature, and what John Bradly could just as easily have said is something like, “At the end of the day, it’s a TV show and it just wasn’t practical for me to lose a lot of weight just because it would have made sense for my character in a few scenes.”
So the idea that we don’t have to care about the noise made by hammering metal pins into a stone wall or that gloves actually make climbing exponentially more difficult doesn’t matter because both of those novels contained some entirely unrealistic fantasy elements is utterly invalid unless an author hand-waves the issue away with a bit of magic. Honestly, tell me the gloves are charmed and I’ll roll with it no problem. Oh, the hammer and pitons your thieves are using were forged from some rare mythical ore mined from the deepest and darkest pits where few dare tread, and it makes them incredibly light but also utterly silent when they’re banged together? Of course, that makes total sense to me and I won’t question it for a second because it fits into the context of your fictional world much better than asking me to pretend hitting metal with metal doesn’t make a painfully loud clang.
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the distinction between possible and probable. I’ve got my own little climbing scene in Whisper of the Wilding Woods Chapter 6. The technique Kaeleth and Aline employ is called stemming, and though it’s not highly probable Aline could stem her way up a stone chimney in ill-fitting boots, it is technically possible. This is where that truthiness thing kicks in, right? On the one hand, it’s pretty unlikely she’s going to be able to manage the tricky body movements on her first try, but what I’m hoping as an author is that you’re immersed enough in the story and Aline’s desperate need to get away from the men chasing her that you’ll buy into the fact that she’s able to do something many experienced climbers struggle with until they’ve had ample opportunity to practice it. Since climbing is something I know fairly well, I’m confident that I’ve portrayed it accurately enough to be technically possible even if stretching the limits of probability for the sake of making it accessible and entertaining to read. Because let’s be honest, most of you don’t want to read a technical manual every time an author starts writing about an area of personal expertise.
If you’re not a writer, the important takeaway here is that we authors are hopefully doing our best to illustrate our fictional worlds with a healthy balance of things that feel real and possible within the context of the world, but that we’re not always going to get it right. I didn’t name names when I referenced those climbing examples, because I don’t want to drag anyone for making a few technical mistakes in otherwise immersive stories that make fantastical elements feel naturally possible. We can do our best to research, try things, and ask for technical critique from experts, but inaccuracies will inevitably slip through.
If you’re a writer, that doesn’t give you license to be lazy about it. It’s so easy to try things these days! You can go to a climbing gym (don’t forget your gloves!), take sword fighting lessons, or spend a few hours bushwhacking through the wilderness in order to get a bit of firsthand experience. And for the things you can’t do, you can find a video on just about anything these days. Just maybe try to talk to someone with actual experience in the subject you’re trying to write about before putting your book out into the world. The poor climbing examples I listed above sparked conversations among friends in which I came up with several alternatives
Before I wrap this up, I want to quickly highlight another scene from Whisper of the Wilding Woods that perhaps brushes up against that barrier between possible and probably for some readers. In Chapter 8, Kaeleth makes a fishing rod and uses a fly fishing technique commonly known today as Tenkara fishing. I worry a bit that the way I’ve described fishing feels anachronistic to anyone with passing knowledge of the activity, but it might surprise you to learn that this form of fixed-line fly fishing dates back to at least 16th century Italy (see embedded video below), which is a hundred or more years earlier than the general period of history upon which I based Tellen at the time this scene takes place. The flip side of the realism coin is that “because it happened” is never an excuse for poor fiction. What I tried very hard to do with that scene is not rely solely on the fact that it was entirely possible for Kaeleth to have used that particular little-known fishing technique, but that I’d done enough work before the scene to effectively immerse readers to the point where it feels completely natural for him to have that specialized skill.
Alright, time to share in the comments; what’s the thing that drives you nuts every time you see it portrayed poorly in fiction? What niche subject are you so well-versed in that you cringe inwardly the instant you see an author try to write about it without having done nearly enough research?
If you need me, I’ll be wandering through the stacks looking for reference books so I don’t screw anything up too badly. Until next time, friends!