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When You Have to Tone it Down

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, March 5, 2022

I've talked at times about how, as I make Without Moonlight, I have to constantly make choices on what to include and what not to from …reality.

By that I mean that true, documented (and even photographed) events from the nazi occupation of Athens during WWII are so grotesquely extreme (in violence, in brutality, in sheer depravity) that were I to illustrate them, the audience's suspension of disbelief for my story would be shattered: “Come on now, this is cartoonishly evil, no way this is real,” is the general reaction to such imagery or premises as the ones I'm talking about.

Even in the sanitized stuff I have included, I had a couple of people questioning whether I was being too extreme, and I had to PQ actual photographic evidence to convince them that I wasn't blowing things out of proportion to villify the nazis in a hamfisted, awkward fashion rather than “good writing”.

I seriously, sincerely, don't blame them. I wish that they were correct 100% and that I was simply overdoing it with the evil or something. But they aren't, and I constantly have to question myself “will this be believed? Should I tone it down a bit? Should I give a ‘light’ version of this so immersion won't be broken?” and so on.

And that doesn't hold only for atrocities. There are many things that life throws at us which wouldn't ‘fly’ in a work of fiction, webcomic, movie, or novel. Mark Twain said it best: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.”

So that leaves us, as creators of historical fiction and the like, with a conundrum:

When truth is stranger than fiction, how much of that can we afford to include in fiction?

There is no one right answer, of course. Just like some readers have questioned whether I exaggerated some scenes or elements in my WM panels, so have others told me that I sanitize them too much and should show them exactly as they happened, even if people don't believe what they see is not “dramatization” or exaggeration.

In my opinion, it depends on who you intend your target audience to be.

When I started making WM, I wanted it to be a stimulus that might intrigue people to look up parts of modern Greek history further, on their own. A gateway to modern Greece's legacy, if you like. What I did not want was the reader to be so appalled or shocked that they'd stop clicking to the next page. I wanted people to get a good, solid feel of civilian experience of WWII (and the occupation) in Greece, I wanted to depict accurate cultural and historical events, but I above all wanted people to still feel compelled to follow a story that was bound to be grim and hard by nature.

So I show the shocking stuff, but toned down to “plausible evil”, if you like, for a work of fiction that can be read by people who know nothing about Greece and the sheer scale of horror people experienced during that time.

If the story's audience was intended to be a lot more aware of what they are in for, then I'd sanitize a lot less.

If the story's audience was intended to be of a certain age, I'd sanitize a lot more (or well, I wouldn't make it for such an audience, but theoretically).

So this is a grim illustration of needing to consider toning down Truth to make it fit in Fiction. There are other things too, like CIA trying to use psychics to spy on the USSR or a Norwegian captain fighting a British ship asking the British captain for ammo so he could continue fighting that same British ship.

Transcribing events like that into stories that want to be realistic and reflecting history rather than being urban fantasy or horror is tough!

Have you ever had this experience, as creator or audience?

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Ozoneocean at 8:07AM, March 5, 2022

I think we often run into trouble with depictions of extreme or unusual situations from history when the context is a bit off- Basically you have to show that it was considered extreme or unusual or bizarre in the context of the time, just as we would consider it now. When it can seem that some horrible event was shown as being not an unusual thing in the past then that can ruin the suspension of disbelief.

Genejoke at 7:00AM, March 5, 2022

I think much comes down to how it's portrayed rather than what is happening, much like bravos examples. But in the case of historical fiction like yours there is as you say, the danger is readers will think you're trying to be edgy. A tricky razor's edge to navigate.

bravo1102 at 5:22AM, March 5, 2022

And yes I have gone too far and been told as much by readers. I had a graphic murder that was too much. I had someone's head get blown off, too much. Tried not to do scenes like that again. After all I'm not a creator who can afford to alienate readers even if I often do. I just create unapologetically weird stories.

bravo1102 at 5:17AM, March 5, 2022

Remember one way of seeing the protagonist is as the character whose goals the story is about. The antagonist is the character who stands in the way of those goals. So they both could be the same character or one story's antagonist could be the protagonist in another and without any rehabilitation, it's just the story is about them and their goals rather than standing in the way of another's. So I've had the antagonist in a couple of stories be the protagonist in another. His motives and deeds are just as dark but his role in the story is different. Or at least I like to think so. Could just be titillation with no meaning or plot.

usedbooks at 3:59AM, March 5, 2022

I used to be really bad at writing antagonists. Protagonists are easy. They just need some broad strokes, and the audience can self-insert a bit. I can make them a bit archetypal or tropey. But "villains" are hard. If you leave them the least but hollow, they come off as cartoonish. I had to turn to real life people for inspiration, mainly true crime and the dark alleys of social media rants. It's unsettling. My villains got much more fleshed out, but my comic got darker. A lot of what I didn't include in the past was also related to my lack of artistic ability. With both art and writing improving, I have to draw metaphorical lines. (I am a fan of subtlety and inferring what isn't shown, but my skill isn't up to that yet. And subtly doesn't work well in webcomics most of the time.)

bravo1102 at 1:25AM, March 5, 2022

But there are movies where they fictionalize what happened and make it truly awful when the real story is riveting edge of your seat blockbuster stuff. All they take every amazing thing that ever happened and compress it into one movie. That was ultimately Fury's failing. Most of the events are real, but didn't all happen to one crew in one day. So there's a balance. WM does an excellent job with it. Part of the toning down is because of the medium. If WM was a live action series might not tone down the photographic reality.

Andreas_Helixfinger at 1:23AM, March 5, 2022

There were increases in thyroid cancer in children in the surrounding area over the years if I'm not mistakened. It's been estimated that the radiation released from the event did spread beyond the region and its surrounding regions across Europe and even as far as Canada. Levels of radioactivity were examinated in various natural food stocks all over. But non of that felt reflected in the theme that was going on in the story. There was a lacking sense of versimilitude I felt. And so I decided to drop real historical events entirely and focus solely, or almost solely, on the stuff of my own imagination, having it be parallell to real-life events at closest.

Andreas_Helixfinger at 1:12AM, March 5, 2022

I'm not sure if this is relevant to the topic. But I feel like I in a sense took my own stories in an opposite direction. In the beginning I was trying to incorporate the Chernobyl Nuclear disaster into the backstory of Molly Lusc, only to down the line abandon that historical angle, switching out Chernobyl disaster for a similar, but fictional disaster event. And the reason for this was because it all came out too exaggarated and somewhat disconnected to the event itself. It became I felt, contributive to the sort of anectdotal stories about birth defects and DNA mutations in children throughout the surrounding population that the media spread around about the effects of the Chernobyl incident, when in fact the only cases of DNA mutations in children were the ones concieved by the workers and liquidators returning from the recovery and clean-up of the disaster after it had happened, obviously recieving most of the radiation.

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