Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Truth or consequences


I spotted this item via Stumbleupon the other day, and it jogged me into wondering whether we really expect biopics, historical films, and “based on a true story” stories to hew to reality. More often than not, the screenwriter seems to use the true story or the famous life merely as a jumping-off point for a dramatic tale. Case in point, the Alan Turing movie, The Imitation Game, which was widely criticized for the way it dealt with Turing’s death. The writer must have thought, I don’t give a shit what really happened; the story is better this way.

The six movies in this list only confirm our suspicions. I was especially blown away by The King and I! Who knew?

They should have added A Beautiful Mind to the list, and probably every musical biopic from the past few years, fictionalizing the lives of everyone from Johnny Cash to Jimi Hendrix. Sometimes the real life just doesn’t cut it.

I bring this up in part because it looks like my next book is going to be a historical novel set in the Sierra foothills in the 1880s. Many readers will probably say, Nothing like this could ever have happened. Especially not then, and not there. It’s about a utopian colony established and populated exclusively by women.

But I say, for the purposes of story-telling, time and place are like a painter’s use of color and texture. You can be somewhat believable while stretching reality enough to do something different. You can give the reader clues that this isn’t meant to be read as a history but rather as a fable. And you can also shrug and say, Some people are going to get it, and they’re the ones I’m talking to.

It is a little bold, though, to take a real person’s life and rewrite it. Hollywood has a carte blanche that us lowly writers can’t hope to benefit from, so let’s be careful out there!


7 comments on “Truth or consequences

  1. sknicholls
    April 10, 2015

    For people who really know history that’s not all that implausible. The Anti-suffrage Society was formed in 1871. So a group goes off to prove a point. I could see that happening and look forward to your “fable”.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 10, 2015

      Right! There’s plenty of context for the idea, so if the execution works, maybe readers will take it as it comes. Hope so!

  2. 1WriteWay
    April 11, 2015

    The difference is you’re writing a “novel,” not a biography that purports to be an accurate rendering of a life when it is anything but that. I always thought one of the pleasures of writing and reading novels and watching good movies is that opportunity to suspend my disbelief and embrace the story. Currently I’m reading Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (another novel that makes me feel I should just give up writing altogether). Lots of real characters in there: Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Trotsky. Lots of true historical events. But what ties everything together is the main character, Harrison, who is purely fiction. In the Q & A at the back of the book, Kingsolver noted that she needed a fictional character that she could have total control over. She does fictionalize dialogue between Kahlo and Harrison, but she can’t entirely control Kahlo. In movies such as A Beautiful Mind or The Imitation Game, apparently the writers thought they could control the real people, twist them like one would twist fictional characters.

    Anyhow, this is a long comment just to say that, given what you describe as your next novel, you will be in good company 🙂 And I have every confidence that your execution will be stellar.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 11, 2015

      I’ll have to look at Lacuna. Sounds interesting, and reminds me a little of Ragtime, which made a huge impression on me at the time. I loved the idea of blending real people with fictional characters.

      I do think we have quite a bit of leeway when we approach historical fiction. It is fiction, after all, and the historical aspect is really just part of the fictional universe you’re creating. I’ve heard that hard-core readers of historical fiction are real sticklers for accuracy, and there are some kooks out there who’ll say: “The repeating rifle wasn’t invented till 1849, and you had your character using it in 1843!” Sheesh.

      Anyway, since this book’s going to be quite a departure for me, I’m an itty bitty bit apprehensive about those types of readers. 😱

      • 1WriteWay
        April 11, 2015

        My husband is that kind of critic, but with movies. He can be very annoying because if we’re watching the movie on TV, he’ll start pointing out the inconsistencies as soon as he sees them.

  3. Phillip McCollum
    April 13, 2015

    Well it looks like you’re going to get your historical Sierra-Nevada novel out before me, so both congratulations and pffftttt…. Kidding of course (on the pfffftttt). Sounds awesome and I completely agree with your view. I think setting and “historical motifs” (for lack of a better term) open the door for all sorts of fantastical things that might have happened, but just didn’t for some reason or another.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 13, 2015

      There’s plenty of room for two historical Sierra Nevada novels!

      But you’re right: There’s no reason that speculative fiction has to be set in the future. The past offers all kinds of “what if” possibilities.

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This entry was posted on April 10, 2015 by in Writing and tagged , , .
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