“Hi Lizard. I’ve got a question on something that’s brought my story to a screeching halt. I’ve never been to a festival. In the story I’m working on, my two main characters fall in love exploring an ocean-themed festival on the beach. What kind of booths might a festival like this have?”
I want to start out by saying that I’ll be talking about writing fiction. There is a whole debate on where to start fabricating details and pieces of creative nonfiction works and while it’s a fascinating topic, that’s not what I’m discussing. Plain and simple, when do you make things up in a fictional story? What should be true to life?
With this question, we’ve got a predicament. There’s two options. Go with realism or go with whimsy. Personally, I’m a big fan of whimsy. As soon as I heard ocean-themed festival, I immediately thought of a boys’ choir all dressed as lobsters performing on bandstand overlooking the sea. I picture vendors selling fried seaweed snacks and a ringtoss to win codfish or bass instead of goldfish. I imagine there would also be things like oyster shucking tutorials, ocean-themed face painting booths, and a Miss Atlantic Beauty Pageant where young ladies are judged on their beauty in their scuba suits. As fun as all of this is, I have never been to a festival that captures any of these elements in a setting like this.
The Argument for Making Things Up
Personally, I think the festival I just described sound like a blast. That would be a good time for a lot of beach-goers. It’s a little wild. Definitely a bit out there. It’s got a lot of moving parts and I imagine it would be hard to organize it, but maybe in the fictional Abernathy, Massachusetts, on an imagined few miles of the cape between Chatham and Harwich, it happens every single year. There’s something really charming and fun about this kind of a setting.
Because I decided it’s something the town puts on annually, though the town itself is fictional, just by situating it on a map, it still might be saying something about the people who live in this area. The festival is fun and a little bit quirky, but maybe it’s really family-oriented. Little qualities like that all will reflect back on the surrounding towns and communities.
So, even when everything is made up, some things will be assumed “not made up,” like how the people who put on the festival are portrayed. Additionally, amidst the whimsical backdrop, readers will look for realism in the characters. When the characters are believable and grounded, their journey through a more whimsical world will be more where readers might expect to find “emotional truth.”
The Argument for Realism
If you’re going for fact, hmmm… That festival could be a farmers’ market or a small town street fair. If the town is on the water, everything might skew more nautical, just because. In a street fair, you’re not going to have the fun necessarily of making up booths. You might fictionalize smaller elements of the story. So, if your street fair is happening in Chatham, Massachusetts (and I have no idea if they have street fairs or festivals), you might make up the vendors that show up and what they sell.You might model it off of a farmer’s market or street fair in your own neighborhood.
With more realism in the setting, you might the relationship between the characters to be more fantastical or larger-than-life. Of course, that’s just an option. In straight realism, you might just keep everything very real and level-headed. It’s my thought though that there isn’t a “real” realism. There’s hard-boiled realism, where suddenly everything is much grittier and painted out like a crime noir. That in itself is such a dramatic portrait of something real, that it is a little less credible as a result.
You could even look at a John Green novel, like for instance, The Fault in Our Stars and while there is an emphasis on realism and showing their experiences with honesty, the story itself is kind of a wild adventure. Protagonists Hazel and Augustus go to Amsterdam to track down a reclusive author. That in itself is kind of crazy. It can happen though and that’s why it’s in the realm of realism. Really though, the plot can be a little more wild because the experience of the characters is what reads as real.
Even in this novel though, there are things that are completely made up. I don’t know about you, but when Hazel raves about her favorite book An Imperial Affliction, I had to look it up. The book’s not real. Neither is the author. It’s a big part of the story and we learn a lot about it, but it’s made up. And for this purpose it works. What other book could do all the things this one has done for the story?