Artistic License and You

You know, being a speculative fiction writer is the best job (well, it would be if I actually got paid). I get free license to do things that would normally get people locked up in an insane asylum, such as conversing with characters who don’t exist or making up fantasy worlds out of thin air. While most people would be given creeped-out stares if they said they live their lives to appease disembodied voices in their heads, us writers are downright expected to follow the every whim of our muses (and — at least in my case — those whims can be pretty dark and twisted).

That said, I think something that not a lot of people realise about genre writers is that sometimes we’re allowed to stare realism in the face and tell it that it’s overrated. Now, don’t get me wrong here — I’m not saying research isn’t an integral part of writing believable fiction; in actual fact, there are many important elements of a good story, such as place, that can only be done correctly if the writer knows what they’re talking about (or at least has enough of a basic understanding and sheer luck to fudge their way through it, and I should point out that this article isn’t telling you to not research anything at all, and please please don’t do that). Indeed, if you’re a writer of literary fiction, or even just contemporary genre fiction that needs to be firmly grounded in real events (historical and crime fiction, for example), you’d better hope that you’ve done enough research and gotten everything right, but for those of us who deal in things that are a little more…well, completely made up (those of us who dabble in the spec-fic genres — sci-fi, fantasy and horror being the most prominent) probably don’t need to worry about it so much.

Why is this? It’s because Speculative Fiction is speculative.

I remember when I first started workshopping fragments of Sun Bleached Winter in my creative writing class early last year, to try and get some feedback and suggestions to incorporate into the next draft. The thing is, the creative writing class I did was focused around writing literary fiction and creative non-fiction and quite a few people pointed out some factual errors that I had genuinely overlooked, such as a character dying from eating irradiated snow (which is really only possible if you ate a lot more than portrayed in my book). These are valid insights: if I were writing a realistic, literary portrayal of the end of the world, that’s a huge error to make. However, I’m a horror writer — my main objective is to tell a gripping story and disturb the reader. These other things don’t really matter so much, because ultimately I’m dealing with something that’s speculative. Right?

Those of us who write speculative fiction primarily deal with things that aren’t at all grounded in reality. We write about futures that may not come to pass, imaginary fantasy worlds with things like magic and dragons (ie. things that any scientific person would tell you definitely don’t exist) and, in my case, an apocalypse that — I’ll be frank with you — probably won’t happen (and gee, I really hope that the world doesn’t end now, because otherwise I’ll look like a giant ass). For all intents and purposes, our stories aren’t set in the real world, and so we get to exercise one of those perks of being a writer that I mentioned earlier: artistic license.

The Wikipedia definition of artistic license calls it “a colloquial term, sometimes euphemism, used to denote the distortion of fact, alteration of the conventions of grammar or language, or rewording of pre-existing text made by an artist to improve a piece of art.”

A little more succinctly, TV Tropes calls it “when a writer knows the facts but chooses to ignore them.”

We do it (well, at least, do it) because, as writers who primarily get paid to make things up, people don’t mind so much if we gloss over things so long as the story itself is interesting. People read genre fiction to escape from reality, and they accept that most books are only an approximation of real life, where writers sometimes bend the rules in order to engage them. When we’re watching Star Wars, we don’t care so much that the spacecraft can travel faster than the speed of light (physically impossible), or that Jedi mind powers don’t exist, because it’s part of the alternative reality in which the action takes place. The story is engaging enough that we’re encouraged to suspend our disbelief and, provided our own writing is good enough, that’s what readers expect to do with our works too.

For me, the best part of writing is letting my imagination come to life, and the best part of reading is being swept away on a fun adventure. We all love a good story, as long as it’s generally plausible. Don’t be afraid to let your inner voices guide you. You have that license.


What do you think? Is artistic license a good thing? Do you like it when writers go the extra mile to establish factual accuracy? I’d love to read your comments.

5 Responses to “Artistic License and You”
  1. danierux says:

    I like what you are getting at here. I mean we, as writers, need to write stories which are believable – no matter how fantastic they are. I’m no writing pro (only started writing seriously for over a month) but I think the key to making the stories work is that you have to actually picture yourself in the scene and think – would that really happen?

    I did this for a short story I am working on, where I made a cat obey his owner. The owner told the cat to go and distract a guard. Looking at this realistically, I don’t think a cat would really do that so I toned it back, and changed it so that the cat went and distracted the guard by itself.

    To answer your question, Yes I do believe Artistic Licence is needed to make stories interesting, but within reason.

    • dgrixti says:

      Yes, you’re right of course. Artistic License should never become the entire basis of the story. The point is that you can gloss over some minor things, or fudge the explanations for others in order to focus on telling an engaging story. Of course, this shouldn’t be an excuse for throwing realism out entirely. The key thing to remember is that you’re only glossing over minor things, and even with acceptable breaks from reality, your story should still be generally plausible.Your example with the cat is a good one.

      In my novel, I have a character who dies from an infected wound. The character only has the wound for a few dies, which isn’t really long enough to cause death in real life, but it’s important to the plot that this happens, so I explain it away with something to do with nuclear radiation poisoning the wound. It’s pretty inaccurate — but most people would generally accept it as SOUNDING believable.

  2. David Michael Williams says:

    It’s a difficult balancing act to be sure: never giving the reader cause to doubt you but at the same time driving oneself mad ensuring everything adds up without fact checking every aspect of the story to death. I tend to err on the side of organizing/researching too much, I think. (More on that here:

    The good news is most readers (and audiences, in the cases of other media) cut us creative types a fair amount of slack. They tend to trust us. But I wouldn’t want to reward that trust with shoddy plotting. I love it when I READ a book and have to go to Wikipedia to see if a “fact” is borrowed from the real world or borne of an author’s fertile mind. When readers can’t tell the difference between elements of this world and creative embellishments — that’s when the writer has successfully blended fact and fiction.

    • dgrixti says:

      You raise a valid point — I too love finishing a book and then heading over to Wikipedia to research a certain plot element (Robert J Sawyer is a master of writing books like this), but there are actually a lot of readers who don’t bother and may actually get turned off by something that seems overly researched. Research is important, there’s no denying that, but I think there’s a line between too much complexity, and something being completely made up, and that’s where I think it’s key to be.

      • David Michael Williams says:

        Agreed. Authors should instill confidence through subtlety, not expository overkill. It’s like an iceberg. The story that’s on the page is only a small part of the big picture, but nobody wants to spend the time combing the depths of the Arctic against his/her will. Only the author need know how dense that hunk of ice really is.

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