Intersection of Fiction and History

Fiction and reality often intersect in interesting, surprising ways. Actual events merge with the imagined; invented stories draw on and feed back into history. In many ways they’re obviously distinct and identifiable; in other cases differentiation becomes impossible.

Such relationships and dichotomies — experience versus invention, reality versus invented stories — came vividly to mind after seeing a deftly-acted and well-written play, Red Velvet, at St. Anne’s Warehouse a while back.

The play was based on the life of a nineteenth century black actor; but half the characters were fictional and much of the story was invented and interpolated, the known biography providing a framework within which the playwright could project her own beliefs and experiences and emotions, upon which the director and actors could layer their own interpretations as well.

I’ve thought before that it might be worth trying my hand at some combination of creative writing and journalism — writing something at once spawned from the imagination and rooted in historic reality seems like a fun and interesting challenge.

And of course, to some degree all fiction, at least in part, is of this nature, isn’t it? To varying degrees of consciousness and intentionality, all fiction takes inspiration from real experiences, memories and past events, fragments accumulated through time, across space, brought together by an author into a vision, a kind of synthesis that hangs together.

From this blend emerges a collage of stimuli and inputs filtered through various lenses, including what we call creativity, none of which is perhaps truly original, except when looked at in a different light, and then it all is, every instance and subjective perspective and experience is born anew.

What we might term “degree of novelty” arises through perspectival differentials, some large and some small; we can denote originality only to the extent to which it is shaped by personal experience, interpreted by way of unique context and circumstance, individual preferences, dreams.

But even if this is so, a writer can be more or less conscious in tracing the flow of inspiration back to its source.

As useful framing device I’m thinking of something like explicitly research-based fiction — by which I mean not necessarily historical fiction (a bland descriptor), but fiction grounded in lived and embodied experience, potent and vital, eminently human and personal, vivid and specific. This certainly isn’t a new idea; many have taken such an approach as goal or ideal in fiction writing. But I don’t have much experience writing fiction, and it’s fun to imagine what this might look like as filtered through my own interests and stylistic proclivities!

One embryonic story-seed that could be extended along these lines: a cadre of children whose disabilities prove to be their superpowers.

We open on a child who is blind, yet has developed extreme sensory facilities in other respects, like touch and smell and hearing. He is able to sense things most cannot — a distinct advantage. Think Daredevil, but less superhero caricatures, more deep research. I think of a podcast story about a blind man who can navigate while mountain biking downhill at high speeds by making loud clicking noises with his mouth — the sort of real and fascinating story that holds so many details that could infuse a work of fiction, too.

The basic thing here would be to take this kind of anecdotal true experience as a kind of template for a character, extend it with further research, and create a story around it that might diverge greatly from the actual life in which it’s rooted, but that uses some of its facts as constraints from which to extrapolate.

The “kids with disabilities as superpowers” idea might take what’s essentially the premise of X-Men, but make it less about paranormal powers and more about strange, enhanced planes of understanding that extend everyday modes of perception — illuminating new perspectives on how we perceive the world, but not leaping beyond the ken of modern science.

The sort of writing I’m thinking of could focus strongly on the details of experience, and draw narrative out of those details, rather than inventing an outlandish story around only whatever surface-level quirks seem cool. So, for example, taking the echolocating mountain biker as inspiration, such writing might carefully extrapolate from specific details of his life, using him not as a cookie cutter template but instead as a living model, extending outwards from known details to the ramifications of experience, continuing to further insights that could be plausibly drawn from real situations.

One idea I’ve returned to: a child trapped in some kind of underground labyrinth, who must navigate by unusual means and explore the strange territory in ways neither he nor we are accustomed to. Whether that means he’s blind or otherwise sensorily-deprived, or the environment is so strange as to effectively render it so, I’m not sure, but it could be cool to play with perspective and approach this as a sort of first person sensory experience. I could start by simply accumulating as many vivid details as possible, and see where that takes me.

I’m not entirely sure where I’ll go with this, or if it’s even something I want to spend a lot of time on, but regardless I find it a lot of fun to ponder different experiments along these lines that might result in coming up with clever and useful devices for storytelling, potential ways to make a story seem more real and alive and believable.

2 Comments

  • I. G. says:

    In a different, political sense I feel this is what George Orwell was able to capture with 1984 & Animal Farm. I read them both not long before visiting Budapest, Hungary and they provided a context of sorts to understand Hungary’s recent history of totalitarian communism.

    • Brendan says:

      Interesting, for sure, good point! Hadn’t considered how allegory can come into play with this sort of thing. Definitely can be useful as a way to throw some aspect of reality in a different light…to perhaps make it more clear / resonant, or more palatable to an audience, or whatever.

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