When fiction gets too close to the truth

It’s been said that good fiction should be believable, otherwise the story will come across as just fantasy.

With the above in mind, I’ve sometimes found it challenging to script characters and scenes that are convincing, yet not overly influenced by actual persons or events. It’s a different matter when referring to historical persons or happenings by name. Most readers easily understand that these are real people and occurrences, and not the author’s imagination. Provided the references are accurate, these “doses” of non-fiction can add depth and granularity to a story. James Michener mastered this style of writing by injecting historical facts and mentioning actual persons in his books. Good examples of Michener’s technique can be found in novels like Texas and Centennial.

But fiction has the potential of rubbing against the truth, and that may provoke unintended reactions or even offend. I discovered this with my first novel, A Golden Weekend, which like many authors’ initial efforts, was somewhat autobiographical. More than a few folks confronted me and said in effect, “You can’t fool me; I know who so-and-so actually is in the story!” I received similar feedback with Rotorboys—an action adventure based loosely on my experiences flying helicopters in the Western Pacific. Some Navy friends were sure that I’d formed characters in the image of familiar people, and modeled scenes on real events.

So how can an author write believable fiction without crossing the line, or worse yet, offending someone? My only guidance is to tread lightly when reflecting on real people or actual events while developing a story. In the end though, perception is reality for some readers and you can’t please everyone. Just saying…