16 June 2015

What is in a novel? Fact v Fiction?

 A good friend of mine read Sea Witch the first of my pirate-based Sea Witch Voyages a short while ago. I was a little stunned by his response – but it got me thinking.

 (Ok no sarcastic remarks relating to that last statement please!)

There’s been quite a bit of debate about whether Historical Fiction should be more fiction than fact, or more fact than fiction - and I guess I am including movies & T.V. drama here as well as novels. We all know how entertaining Braveheart was – and how completely unhistorical! On the other hand, read an Elizabeth Chadwick or a Sharon Penman and you know you are getting your money’s worth regarding fact perfectly blending with the fictional made-up bits.

For my Sea Witch Voyages, I twiddle with the facts of history, my sailing detail is as accurate as I can get it – but there is also a huge wedge of outright fantasy. The Voyages are not meant to be taken seriously; they are nautical adventure with a big dash of make-believe.

But here’s what has stumped me. These books are pirate-based (my lead character becomes an ex-pirate by Voyage Two, Pirate Code but that is immaterial in this context).

Here’s the gist of what my friend said:

I finished Sea Witch yesterday. I loved it. The plot is terrific… There are so many twists and turns, yet the whole novel has a consistent flow to it. The senses of time and place are superb, in fact could hardly be bettered. I heard the noises and felt the movement of the ships. I felt I was on the sea, and the nautical jargon was pitch-perfect. It’s good to have been entertained and educated at the same time.
Normally I would have disliked the paranormal stuff, but actually I enjoyed it even when, towards the end, the contest between Tethys and Tiola came to dominate the action. It was a thrilling battle of wills with an awesome, nautical backdrop. “

So far so good… but…

I found Jesamiah Acorne a loathsome character (the word is not too strong) from beginning to end. Didn’t that put me off? Strangely not, for reasons which will become apparent. I never wanted Tiola and Jesamiah to come together, and when they parted at Cape Town (that passage was particularly brilliant and unexpected), I didn’t want her to be reunited with him at any stage. There are several reasons why I disliked Jesamiah so much…”

That stunned me. Didn’t like my darling character Jesamiah? The love of my (fictional) life? My hero… my…. Well, you get the drift.

 My friend went on to say:
I don’t find piracy attractive in the slightest. I feel the same way about gangsters and the Mafia. They do horrible things purely for personal gain. No ‘Robin Hood’ motives there. Perhaps I’m being unreasonable and unimaginative by failing to take into account the harsh conditions of the time. The opening scene, which is exciting and graphic, reveals him committing barbarities with only the basest motive.
The character of Stefan van Overstratten is introduced in a reasonably favourable light, unlike Phillipe Mereno, who is quite clearly repulsive from the start. So in the competition for Tiola’s affections, it was natural for me to side with Stefan rather than Jesamiah from the beginning. Only in the second half of the book was Stefan shown to be more nasty. As for Jesamiah, I waited in vain throughout the novel for some noble or redemptive act. He never performed one, his only ‘virtues’ being that he was a good seaman and captain and loved the heroine. But for me he was well ahead of Stefan in the nastiness stakes almost throughout. Only when he was in trouble with the repulsive Phillipe and then finally confronted him did I want him to succeed.

Well that was pretty blunt. I was a little bit huffy – but this is when I got to thinking to myself: “Hmm. Has he got a good point.”

The majority of Historical Fiction readers want the facts interwoven with their fiction (as writers do we have a ‘duty of care’ to give the facts as best we can?) It does bother me that there are some, shall we say ‘ungenerous’ people out there (mostly on Social Media) who take delight in trashing an author’s hard work because of the tiniest of slips – this I do find irritating. The key word is FICTION. Fiction means made-up, untrue, not fact. If these people want pure, 100% fact then read non-fiction not a STORY.

But where, then, do we stand with writing fiction that is meant to be a “fun tongue-in-cheek read” where the lead character is clearly NOT factually written nor meant to be taken seriously/factually?

I don’t see my Jesamiah as a brute of a pirate. Yes he’s pillaged and plundered, yes he attacks and kills innocent people… but so does James Bond, Indiana Jones, the Three Musketeers,  highwaymen…Game of Thrones... In movies, stories, etc we think of pirates as Romantic Heroes: Errol Flynn, Jack Sparrow, Jesamiah Acorne… Don’t we? (and what about Vikings and Vampires?)

 Jesamiah is a made-up character. He isn’t real, the stories are meant to be read with an air of suspended belief. But perhaps they shouldn’t be?
Perhaps I should have written something more factual? Although that would have made Sea Witch a completely different novel of course.


Jesamiah has a rapidly expanding fan base. I’ve never had a reader react so “factually” before – well, none who have actually responded to me. (Apart from my ex-agent who loathed the book – but she wanted me to write it for children. I was adamant it was for adults. ) Come to think of it, isn’t Treasure Island full of gruesome characters?

So here’s my question – do we happily accept the made-up when it comes to the in reality bad-guys becoming the heroes of fiction? Are we happy to totally suspend belief when it comes to the romantic rogue of a hero? Or should we be more careful about portraying more factually in our fiction the people who were – let’s face it - the terrorists of their time?

Has my friend missed the point (that the story is made-up fiction and is not meant to be taken seriously)  - or has he made a very thought-provoking and valid  point? (that even if made-up and not meant to be taken seriously why do we 'romanticise' these louts?)

Pirates? Valentines or Villains?
I am really grateful to my friend because he has made me think, and to see a different side to what we tend to blindly accept as OK because its fiction.

But what say you?


  1. I actually don't think he's missing your point...from what you have posted here of his reaction and what thoughts you had about it, I think you might be missing HIS point.

    I have not read the book yet, but I can say that what he says about his reactions to characters like gangsters and the like resonates with me. I HATE nearly all gangster movies, and some pirate stories, even though I write pirate fiction. The only character in Pulp Fiction I felt at all bad for was the kid who accidentally got his head blown off in the back of a car. But I love Captain Blood, and the first PotC movie, some Robin Hood stories, etc. For me it's not about needing to see all villainous occupations portrayed positively, or needing them to be portrayed accurately. I simply need sympathetic characters for me to care about the story, and my protagonists have to BE protagonists in some believable fashion.

    Your friend doesn't seem to be complaining that you have someone highly unsavory in your story, nor is he complaining that your account isn't factual enough. He sounds like he's complaining about this character being portrayed as BOTH highly unsavory/unsympathetic AND a protagonist. His key sentence, in my book:

    "The opening scene, which is exciting and graphic, reveals him committing barbarities with ONLY THE BASEST MOTIVE." [My emphasis.]

    Sure, James Bond, Indiana Jones, the Three Musketeers, Errol Flynn characters and lots of other romantic figures leave a trail of dead bodies behind them, some innocent, but usually as a by-product of some less selfish motive (nationalism, duty, scientific integrity, necessity, etc). Game of Thrones is a special case because George has spelled out that these are largely unsavory people in that they act the way real Medieval figures do, and they are not meant to be romantic figures (why people romanticize them is kind of beyond me, so I'm glad his stated intention was for them to be "real").

    I hate gangster movies for this very reason. Nearly every gangster movie has the gangsters portrayed as the protagonists somehow, in spite of their motives and actions being totally selfish and reprehensible. I can't see them as believable protagonists, and what romanticizes other figures like Captain Blood for me is that their motives at least seem like they flirt with morality, integrity, or necessity. To me, it doesn't matter how witty, debonair, stylish, suave, bad-ass, or handsome they are supposed to be. If their motives are reprehensible, I cannot accept them as protagonists, and I'd prefer they die in a fire as early as possible or get painted as antagonists.

    So to sum up, I don't think your friend is saying it is impossible to romanticize some figures who commit piratical acts, or that you should or shouldn't try to do that. I think your friend is saying that this character is an antagonist in protagonist's clothing, and he just can't root for the guy or indeed wish any good on him.

    In my own fiction, I am playing with this very issue, and I feel happy that people largely identify with my protagonists as such to begin with, and then start to question it as time goes on, but that's kind of the broader point of my series.

    My own opinion is that it is neither right nor wrong to adhere to fact or to play fast and loose with it. I frankly get tired of people being sticklers for it. It is fiction more than history, and I agree with all your comments on that. I get frankly bored whenever people start in on how wrong it is to deviate from history at all. Go read history then!

    1. Thanks Ozgur I don't like gangster movies either - but its because I don't like those sort of stories, not because of the gangsters. The Godfather was a huge hit - I wonder, is it the fascination with these ne'er-do-wells that attract us? (incidentally I meant is my friend 'missing the point' in the context of missing the point that the story is make-believe and not meant to be taken seriously) Your comment is more food for thought - thanks!

  2. We can only please some of the people, some of the time. I am afraid it is a sad fact of life that us writers have to painfully face...not everyone is going to like what we write. I also think woman love the 'tamable rogue' element, the 'bad-boy' character, where as men often resent them. Many years ago I wrote about the ultimate 'bad boy' the Marquis de Sade, as when I read about him it struck me as fascinating that the women in his life all stood by him and loved him to the end - an unexpected element to history's bogie-man. I brought out a character that woman readers loved, and men hated - which was a reflection of de Sade's effect on his contemporaries. As you know I am a staunch believer that historical fiction should immerse the reader in the historical setting and be as close to the known reality as you can get, that said it has to be entertaining and dramatic. I would also like to point out that pirates, gangsters, cowboys, vikings...have always been of great fascination and often hero worshiped by their contemporaries, not just later romantics. One man's pirate is another woman's Errol Flynn - just keep doing what you do, Helen, you do it supremely and I'll sign you up for the 'beg to differ' classes I am booking myself in for ;) x

    1. Thanks Janis - another example is Vampires (and the like) why are they so popular - let's face it they're even worse than pirates! All this has a blend of the fantasy and the romantic v the reality doesn't it? I think you are right though - the ladies go for Jesamiah, the chaps prefer Tiola. So is Jesamiah's piracy more acceptable if he has/had a motive for it beyond pure greed? That's something I might explore in Book Six, Gallows Wake. Historically men flocked to piracy because it was a form of freedom, go where ou want, do what you want and maybe you'll get lucky and get rich. Not all pirates were bloodthirsty butchers like Blackbeard - several pirate Captains were known for being too 'soft-hearted. And what about Privateers? Men like Francis Drake, Henry Morgan... they were pirates as well, but their deeds didn't count as piracy because they only attacked the Spanish - so that was all allright then! :-)

  3. This is likely a 'bland' response that may irritate some, but I do think it's a matter of personal preference whether you like bad-boys as heroes or not. Personally, I find pirates rather horrible, but I don't discount their appeal, or their romanticization in fiction. I've hated TV series that others loved because I, personally, don't like to see immorality glamorized or made to seem admirable. That includes The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. I loathed Breaking Bad in particular because I thought everyone in it was just plain horrible, and offensive and off-putting. I didn't care how well it was written; no way I could get into it because of all the glorified crime and violence. And personally I like my pirates 'real' - that is, complex, a mixture of good and bad, and not the romantic hero type. But to each their own. I don't like romance fiction in general, so I'm prejudiced. And I'm willing to bet that those who like their fictional pirates to be romantic heroes would not find a living pirate particularly attractive. I think they understand the difference between fiction and reality. I also think those who loved The Sopranos might not feel quite so warm and fuzzy towards them if they met them in real life, or their lives were affected by vendettas and the violence of organized crime. Reading can be both immersion into the reality behind stereotypes, and an escape. I think there is room for both, just as there is on TV.

    1. I haven't seen either of those shows, so can't comment. Isn't part of reading (or watching movies / TV shows) the desire to escape reality? We want to ignore the reality - watch a horror movie and know we'll be Ok, we;ll survive, watch violence, nastinss etc ditto we'll survive. Meet a pirate / vampire/ zombie (whatever) and know we'll survive? Isn't that the 'romance' of it...unrealistic escapism. I think its the same with celebs... we drool over our favourite star - bet your life he/she is a right so-and-so in real life with bad breath and spots! :-)

  4. This really hits home for me today as a reader of my latest book said, "The great thing about your books is that despite all of my own failings, I look pretty good compared to the flaws in the characters in your novels. I find it hard to like any of your characters due to how horrid they all are. You do put a lot of depth into your characters but as you go deeper it just gets uglier."

    I LOVE (most) of my characters and see their many flaws as part of their humanity. I can't suspend my disbelief enough to enjoy super heroes and perfectly evil villains. To me all people are a little darker than we like to present ourselves and I love exploring that and seeing if any of the characters can be redeemed. This reader has raced through both my books so I can't complain. We just see the world differently.

    1. You can't win can you? LOL I've had readers complain that my characters are "too one-dimensional good-guys" (not my pirate series - my straight Historical Fiction) And that reader you mentioned couldn't have detested your books that much to have continued reading TWO of them! I thoroughly agree - to make a character real lets see the flaws as well as the nice bits. I am trying to do that with my pirates (which is probably also why I am a bit puzzled about my friend's reaction) He (my pirate not my friend!) does express remorse, he does do 'good deeds' as well as bad. Maybe he doesn't do enough good stuff?

  5. Hi Helen, I read your interesting post last night and have spent awhile today pondering on the 'ifs and buts' of it. These are some of the random thoughts that came to me. Firstly, in real life fiction can be a wonderful escapism from what is actually going on in our own worlds; in other words an enjoyable activity to be indulged in. We are aware of this and why not!

    When we read books or watch fictional films or TV series, there are always many varied points of view about every fictional genre under the sun. That doesn't make the individual viewpoint wrong; just different. How boring life, both in reality and in fiction would be; without the differences.

    What is wrong with a 'flawed hero?' (back to escapism) Let's face it no hero in real life is perfect. There is good and bad in every one of us, There are I am sure many modern day 'pirates' who do not sail the high seas on ships flying the skull and crossbones flag; certainly enough of them for us to immerse ourselves in the fictional flawed heroes, aware of the flaws but enjoying the experiences of reading about their (fictional) exciting lives. We might hate the drug dealers, the arms suppliers, the politicians of our world but when we pick up a fiction book we are entering with great anticipation the excitement of a fictional world and we know the difference.

    I personally enjoy that mixture of historical facts and the addition of fictional characters who may or may not be wicked. That is why I was initially drawn to excellent historical writers such as yourself years ago. In your earlier books there is not only the blend of facts and fiction but you take a well known character like Arthur or Merlin and give us a very fresh and original perspective on men who I am sure in the world of reality would do all manner of 'wicked' deeds as well as good ones. I would be interested in how you might one day approach such a character as Robin Hood!

    In your pirate series you have drawn greatly on the fictional element to introduce to us a most delightful if roguish character - Jesamiah. He may be a pirate, but you redeem him - not only because he is such an exciting character and for me definitely a protagonist in spite of his piracy; but because you give him real depth of character. Like many flawed fictional heroes he is a mixture of good and bad and we see many other good sides to him, especially in his loving. All of us who have read your Sea Witch books know who the antagonists are.

    I would suspect that not only your friend with his very different point of view, but most other folk who might find Jesamiah a distasteful character are males! (enough said) I say this light-heartedly, but many women's romantic side comes to the fore when reading about fictional handsome male anti- heroes, especially the flawed ones! LOL.

    Add to this the magical elements in your Pirate series and the proof of the pudding Helen...... is in your sales!!!!!

    You cannot as you say yourself, please all of the people all of the time, the diversities of human nature being as they are. I don't think you are missing the point at all. Equally I guess, your friend has a right to his own point of view.Enough said! I'm with you! Bring us more of Jesamiah. Keep these book a-coming! Leila.x

    1. Thanks for this (and all the nice compliments of course!) Interesting that yes, it does seem to be the men who dislike Jesamiah - whether as a character or because of the reality of 'pirates'. (I wonder if the same applies to Jack Sparrow? I suspect - yes) I think you have hit the nail on the head here - we read (and enjoy) these sort of 'romantic' adventures purely for escapism - alittle bit of "we know real pirates are not like this so we're donning the rose-coloured glasses to blur the real world."
      I'm really grateful to my friend because he's opened the door to a super discussion (and food for thought!)

      (you'll be pleased to know the next Sea Witch Voyage 'On The Account' will be out soon!)


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