Accuracy vs Audience: An Author’s Dilemma

Sometimes, accuracy can be a very helpful tool. It can show that you as a writer are intelligent, gives credibility to your work and gives fewer opportunities for suspension of disbelief to be broken. But sometimes accuracy can be jarring and rather unsettling, as I will now attempt to explain.

When people strive for accuracy, they tend to get all the details correct. That can be a very bad thing in the realm of fiction. A fun action scene in a clear desert can be ruined if a facts lawyer decides to have people’s guns start jamming at random, people passing out from heat stroke etc. A scientific character could easily be derailed by his specific field not covering a certain problem in a story or situation and s/he would need another expert that would in many kinds of story create an extraneous character or multiple. A more extreme example can be found below.

I slowly crouched down beside his head, which was practically unharmed, and waved my hand several times in front of his face. No response. Taking my approach one step further I put my middle and index fingers on his eyelids and closed them. The eyes slowly reopened and I breathed a sigh of relief. Alive, I thought. To clarify my finding, I placed a hand on his stomach. But my quick decision to move wasn’t handled well by my stiff, nervous legs and I accidentally placed nearly all of my weight onto his belly.

My face quickly morphed into an image of horror as I felt a movement of fluid in the man’s stomach and a squishing sound came out from his open mouth. Out of the corner of his mouth came a trickle of orange-yellow liquid, thick and gelatinous, that was forcibly filling his mouth. A bubble formed within what I was sure was bile and popped over the dry, cracked lips. The sight of vomit was the lesser of my two worries as I realised that the looter’s bowels had loosened and soiled his pants. The scent of days-old, still digesting food, halitosis and wet faecal matter crept into my nose and I jumped away in disgust. I held my mouth closed in fear of the contents of my stomach spilling out of it. Dead, decidedly dead. The man’s jaw now fell open more completely and the disgusting liquid splatted on the black tar road, the bubble of mucous splitting and letting the bile loose. Looking at the corpse, I took a minute to breathe.

In real life, dead bodies are disgusting. Aside from the obvious rot and disease problems, a corpse has lost all bodily function and will defecate, urinate and vomit involuntarily (my classmate’s mother encountered a cadaver that screamed). Frankly, this is disgusting and an often avoided bit of information in literary fiction when discussing the deceased. I decided to include this to solidify Steve’s code of not killing people in battle and as a reminder that, however patriotic, glorious and/or cool my battle and actions might be, war is not a game nor is the killing of other humans. But this kind of information, realistic as it may be, is potentially off-putting in places and can be completely out of place in certain kinds of story.

In short, accuracy can be helpful but it must be remembered that the content is dictated by audience reaction rather than the other way around.

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