The other day I wrote:

For a writer, I really don’t know the answers to any of these questions and more like I probably should. I am in the camp of fictionalizing as much as possible. This is not news to Hit Coffee readers, but it’s also true in my fiction. The President, if portrayed, is never the actual president unless he absolutely has to be. Microsoft doesn’t exist. The movie stars will never be Tom Hanks and the dirty celebrities Paris Hilton unless it’s such a passing reference that I need the instant recognition.

I was thinking about this prior to having written that post or hearing about the whole Wiesel play thing. It most recently came to mind when I was watching Iron Man 2. In the movie, they show clips of Bill O’Reilly commentating and Christianne Amanpour reporting the news. I found that irritating and not just because I find Bill O’Reilly and Christianne Amanpour (and most “news” personalities and TV reporters, for that matter) irritating. I found it irritating because it blurred the lines between fact and fiction poorly. I was similarly irritated by the mock-Laughlin Group’s appearance in Watchmen.

Using real personalities or impersonators of real personalities can be an effective tool to add realism to stories. I didn’t object, for instance, when the Laughlin Group was used in either Dave or Independence Day. Both were, at least up until the aliens attacked in the latter movie, supposed to take place in something resembling the real world. So using real commentators (and in Dave, real senators) makes sense. But no one is pretending that Iron Man is realistic. No one is pretending that The Watchmen takes place in something resembling the real world. In the case of Iron Man, it’s not just that you have a guy in a power-suit and all that jazz. You can always push one anomaly, no matter how major, and say “and this is happening is a world exactly like our own!” But the Iron Man series continues to set up an Avengers movie. So you don’t just have a man in a suit, you have a dude with a magical hammer. You have a guy who took super-soldier serum during World War II, was frozen in ice, and thawed in modern day. You have a guy that through radiation becomes muscular and unintelligible. You have, in short, a world unlike our own.

And there’s nothing wrong with that! I say, embrace it! Have fun with it! Iron Man succeeds in large part because it sets out to be such a fun movie. Superhero movies trying to be realistic lays the groundwork for disappointment. X-Men, for instance, failed to embrace its superheroism and suffered for it. Watchmen, on the other hand, does try to take a distinctly unfun superhero path. But even there, the Laughlin Group doesn’t work because they explicitly chart out a different course for the history of events. Having John Laughlin around is one thing. Having him doing the exact same thing he’s doing in this world strikes me as internally inconsistent. The entire media landscape would change with Richard Nixon in his fifth term (nevermind the omnipotent blue guy).

But this isn’t about superhero movies. It’s about a lot of things. I think that at the outset of any story project that even tangentially involves politics or government, the creators need to decide how comparable their world is to our own world. A contemporary sitcom or drama, for instance, should take place in our world. Even if they throw in a fictional congressperson as a character. A show like Brothers & Sisters, which expressly involves politics, needs to make a decision one way or the other. Instead, they had a plot where Rob Lowe was a Republican character running for president against a more conservative Republican character running for president and these were the only two Republicans the plot explored… and Barack Obama was elected president. I can understand the dilemma because they want a show that is politically relevant and they also want a plot with Rob Lowe running for president, but I think they needed to make a decision one way or the other. Even if “The President” was an obvious stand-in for George W. Bush (and later Barack Obama). At the very least, it would have provided the opportunity for the president to become a character himself. The main reason that they didn’t – contemporary relevance – they threw out the window when they (a) put a Republican senator in California and more (b) made him a relevant figure in national politics (24 did the same thing, though Logan wasn’t a senator, and that sits wrong with me, too, though they did much else right as far as the internal politics goes).

In my own writing I have run into this question. My first, third, and fourth novel all take place in the same universe. I had an idea for a different branch of novels that involved a fictional president. However, when I canned that idea I found that using the Bush-Gore race as a metaphor was a super idea and I shifted it back to the real world. Then, when the fourth novel came around and I had a fictional congressperson, I had to think about it all over again (I ultimately decided that one fictional congressperson who would never go on to be president would not disrupt politics too much. And too much of the story was real-world for me to bother with fictional governance.

It’s not just politics, though. I see the same things when it comes to businesses. It’s one thing to throw a fictional company into the mix, but if that company is a powerhouse you have to account for existing powerhouses. The movie Anti-Trust failed with this. On the one hand, you have this company named Nerv that is clearly a stand-in for Microsoft. But then a reference is made to Bill Gates. And it’s difficult to imagine both Tim Robbins’s character and Bill Gates both being relevant in the course of the story. Particularly in a throwaway line just to show how much awesomer Robbins is than Gates.

This is an area where I have also struggled with in my own writing. The narrator of my fourth novel is a dot-com millionaire (though within the context of this universe, the term .com has been replaced with .co so that I don’t use real domains) in what is a cross between Yahoo and Google. In my first draft I made references to Google (in the context of it being more successful than the narrator’s product), but I also realized along the way that it didn’t really work. My character’s company actually does very much what Google does*. A world in which this company exists, Google would have had a hard time making its footprint. So in future versions, I’ll be stripping Google mentions. Kind of hard since “to google” has become a verb, but I’ll figure it out.

I had a similar problem in my third novel with a particular genre of music. There are a number of fictional bands mentioned prominently and unavoidably in the story. But at the same time, I also wanted to add real bands for context. My editor Kelvin called me on this, telling me that I needed to make a decision one way or the other. I’m eliminating the real bands. At least the current ones.

Perhaps the writer that understands the most of what I am talking about is Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing fame. Sorkin mentioned in an interview that NBC all but forced him to give Jay Leno a cameo. He hated the idea because Leno didn’t exist in The West Wing universe. I can imagine him trying to explain that to NBC executives. Sorkin also miraculously managed to avoid any mention of 9/11 (though they did have A Very Special Episode… but it didn’t involve planes into buildings). 24 succeeded on this front, too, which was really impressive for a show that regularly features Middle Eastern terrorists.

Of course, I write this on a blog where I am actually not entirely consistent. On one hand, I have the Trumanverse map with all manner of fictional states. On the other hand, I make references to real states. I’m not sure how to square this round hole. Mostly, if I’m talking current events, I talk real states. If I’m talking my life, I use fictitious ones. There is an in between point, though, where I want to mention my real state but can’t and so I will mention both real and fictional states in a single comment or post. However, that’s about maintaining anonymity. From an art standpoint, it’s a weakness in the Hit Coffee setup.

* – Actually, I had thought of their business model while I was in college before Google was a blip on the radar. People Lexis/Nexused other people rather than Googled them and Metacrawler was the search engine to beat. Ahhh, would that I had a few million in capital at the time!


Category: Theater

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7 Responses to The Line Between Fact and Fiction

  1. Barry says:

    The world of 24 has been much worse than our world – as bad as 9/11 was, the 24 world has seen 2 nukes exploded on American soil, one in the desert and one destroying a part of L.A. It’s had about a president killed in an Air Force One shoot down and his successor was totally crooked. There’ve been Sentox nerve gas attacks, 2 different major biological attacks, and a dirty bomb thing this season. I’d hate to live in 24’s America…

    I liked when The West Wing used real life personalities – made it more of a alternate history feel than something that was jarring in the juxtaposition of truth and fiction. They had MSNBC, Tim Russert, even Yassar Arafat for a while until they needed an actual Palestenian as a character and they created a new one. A similar consolation was made when in the beginning Syria was a bad guy country but eventually fictional ones like Qumar were created as not to offend anyone in real life. I don’t remember how recently they mentioned past presidents, maybe Kennedy. Bartlett’s immediate predecessors were fictional (one play by James Cromwell) but of course Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Andy Jackson, were real as were all the normal monuments in and around D.C.

    I guess what takes some out of the story just enhances it to me…

  2. Mike Hunt says:

    When you referred to the “mock-Laughlin Group” I thought you were being clever. However, once I continued to read, I realized you were just ignorant.

    This coming only a week after the KFC debacle.

    Is the lack of work causing your synapses to atrophy?

  3. trumwill says:

    My brain probably got confused because mock-McLaughlin didn’t sound right (though it would have been) to it and so it became mock-Laughlin and when mock- was dropped, incorrectly Laughlin.

    In any event, I am not detail-oriented. You’re reading a blogger that has put the word “face” when he meant the word “phone.” Forgetting that the Mc is not something I am going to spend a whole lot of time worrying about.

  4. trumwill says:

    Barry,

    I think someone somewhere established that Nixon was the last real president mentioned on the show. I like to think that Nixon resigned a year earlier and the 25th Amendment included a provision that in the event of a succession the four year terms start anew at the next congressional election. Hence Bartlet being re-elected in 2002 and Santos being elected in 2006.

    Oddly enough, I remember Cromwell’s character’s name, Wire Newman. I think I remember it because it’s such a bizarre name. Oddly enough, that episode inadvertently established that Leo worked as the Transportation Secretary in the administration of a conservative Republican president (Owen Lassiter, whose name I recall because I know people with each of those names).

  5. Mike Hunt says:

    @1

    The last “real” president in TWW is Nixon.

    If you notice, on TWW the presidential elections were held in 1998, 2002, and 2006. One theory why is that after Nixon resigned in 1974, a presidential election was held that November, forever altering the election calendar.

  6. David Alexander says:

    I don’t mind seeing real personalities in movies because it gives a nice touch of realism to the film, and it’s arguably better than the alternative, a fake half-assed one-dimensional character that serves as a pale imitation of the original. Besides, these aren’t characters that are essential to the part, but small cameos that provide for a fun backdrop. Admittedly, it’s something that one can get away with in a film like Iron Man in a limited context. Iron Man is our world with a super hero, while Watchmen is an alternative history time line where alternative fictional figures would be a better fit.

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