Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Happy December! Hopefully as everyone starts coming back down from the craziness of NaNoWriMo you’re all enjoying family time, sleep, and all of that sweet, sweet editing.

For anyone who doesn’t already know (hi to the three of you!), I tend to spend a lot of my free computer time hanging around the NaNoWriMo Forums. One of the forums, the Reference Desk, is also a great place for authors to get information they might not be able to easily research online. Need to know what a social worker in Alaska would do in X situation? There very well might be someone whose day job is being an Alaskan social worker hanging around to answer you. It truly is a great resource for any matter of questions, November or no.

So, going through posts on the Reference Desk recently, I came across a post asking about recovery times from a stomach wound. Namely, they had a character they didn’t want to die, but did want to suffer a sword wound going clean through their stomach in a crusades-era setting (doesn’t specify which crusade, but sometime between 1000-1200 A.D. presumably). And so, after outlining what they wanted to happen to the character and asking how long it would take to recover from that wound, the poster ended up with a resounding, “They’re not going to recover” phrased in a number of ways:

“They better have a saint on hand to perform a miracle”

“Magic, time travel, and divine intervention would be the character’s only hopes.”

“From right away to three or four agonizing days. That’s assuming that “heal” and “die” mean the same thing.”

“About nine months, after which your reincarnated body is ejected from the host you are going to have to learn to call ‘mommy’.”

A little snarkier than the NaNo Forums tend to get, but a fair enough point. Finding the responses amusing on my end (my apologies to the Original Poster if they found any of the responses mean, or are upset I found them amusing) I ended up reading a couple out loud to my historian husband. Being him/us this got us into a debate about ancient health care.

Now, since I’ve recently been working on projects that take place in historical fantasy worlds, I’ve gotten very used to hearing about all the little quibbles my husband has with “Hollywood” history (things movies do for plot reasons, or because the writers don’t know any better, that perpetuate things that are widely debunked by historians at this point). For the most part, it’s very helpful to have (I’ve gotten lazy by being able to go “Honey, what kind of guns would they have in the 15th century?” and have him rattle it off without me having to look it up) but this particular debate went something along the lines of this:

Husband: “I’m not sure that’s entirely fair. They helped people with crazy injuries back then. It’s not like they didn’t have any medical knowledge or something.”

Me: “They didn’t have antibiotics.”

Husband: “No, but some battlefield techniques were already highly advanced.”

Me: “People would still die from a wound like that today. It’s not saying ‘Look at those people who don’t know anything’ It’s saying, ‘If you run someone through the stomach with a sword and pull it out to leave all that acid and blood and bile eating away at the guy, he’s most likely going to die.”

Husband: “Painfully.”

Me: “Exactly!”

Husband: “But ‘most likely’. People did survive crazy, crazy injuries now and again…”

And then he trailed off into a number of examples that he of course knew off the top of his head about people surviving being stabbed, bludgeoned, and shot any number of ways while at war, because he somehow keeps a fully-indexed encyclopedia of facts in his head. It really should be studied by science.

Anyway, while, yes, I will fully admit crazier things have happened in real life, this argument got me thinking about the old Mark Twain quote: “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”

And that, really, is the crux of the original NaNo poster’s problem. While maybe, had this character the author is writing been real, they could have been that one in a billion to survive through some absurd act of god. The chance is so small, however, that writing about someone surviving that wound would shatter just about every reader’s suspension of disbelief. In this case, saving the character would still be an act of god, but only insofar as the author is acting “god” over their story. And so the real difference between the two is that authors are held to a higher standard as far as what is believable. As creator of our story worlds, we can say the sky is green or people can fly or rabbits talk, but only on Tuesdays and as long as that is established, the reader will for the most part go along with it.  When using things based in reality, however, having things so improbable they’re nearly impossible in your story seems as though the author is suddenly using their ability to turn the sky green just because they can. And that’s jarring.

So, sadly, while you generally have god-like powers over the characters in your stories as an author, fiction still sometimes finds itself held to a higher standard than even reality when it comes to the improbable. And so, for our NaNo poster, that character is either going to either have to have a new wound or die for there not to be an outcry.

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