When It’s Right to Ignore the Facts

Recently, I had to ignore the answer a friend gave me—even though I’m sure she’s quite right—because it just didn’t serve the story I wanted to write. Fortunately, fiction writers aren’t expected to always tell the truth; our only obligation is to make whatever story we weave believable.

Here’s what happened. 

When Eliza Malloy, mother of James (the main character in Ferry to Cooperation Island) first stepped up to narrate my 2021 Holiday story, I didn’t yet know her very well. I did know quite a bit about James, though—and I quickly realized that his mother knew where he got that scar on his left temple; something James never would’ve told her himself.

So then I had to figure out HOW she’d found out. 

The only other person who knew what had happened was James’ ex-girlfriend—and she’d been his mother’s loyal penpal. So I asked my friend (who also happened to be a mother): would a mom keep writing to her son’s ex-girlfriend, after they broke up? “Definitely not without telling the son,” this straightforward person responded.

Hmm. That truth didn’t serve the story at all… so after some thought, I chose to ignore that inconvenient truth and soldier on. 

Once I got to know Mrs. Malloy a bit better, I realized that she was quite different from my friend; not devious, exactly, but much more interested in her son’s life details than he was in sharing them. Since she valued her letters from the ex-girlfriend too much to give them up, she kept writing back—even after the two split up. Though she wasn’t particularly proud about this, the behavior seemed completely justified to her—and therefore, to me. 

I didn’t think any of this detail would matter very much, but as I polished the holiday story I realized that the ending hinged on Mrs. Malloy’s private knowledge —because the guilt that she knows more than she’s telling shapes her interaction with her son. If I hadn’t ignored my friend’s advice, I never would have realized that.

Fiction has to be believable, but it doesn’t have to stick to the “facts.” What’s true for one straightforward friend might be totally false for a less straightforward character—and that’s a very good thing.

Now, did I achieve my goal of writing a believable story, despite ignoring the facts? Let me know by email, or in the comments below. Thanks for reading!