Playing with Fire: Writing Realistically or Not?


It’s a good thing I love the push and pull between fantasy and reality — seriously, that theme’s in almost all of my stories — because I had to deal with that balance of opposing forces when I wrote my last teaser.

In the teaser (which will soon be available to those who sign up for my free email newsletter), my hero Calder runs into a burning building to save his friend. He goes up to the second story, finds his friend, and escapes with little more than a singed head of hair. There’s also cool special effects you’d find in any action movie.

Problem is, in a real fire, he’d have died instantly.

One of my betas is an EMT, so he told me what you could expect in a fire. The kiss of death? There’s an eight hundred degree difference between the floor and standing height. As he put it, Calder’s head would have caught on fire when he entered the building.

So as a writer, how do I balance the reality of a burning building with the dramatic expectations Hollywood has given my reader?

I’ve read exactly one book that has a similar situation. Not sure if that’s good or bad, it’s just what I’ve read. It was Cold Fire by Tamora Pierce. An arsonist is setting fires in town, and the main character and her teacher go in and rescue tons of people. How? They’re forge mages. Their magic inures them to heat and smoke. They can hold red-hot pieces of metal, magically blow smoke out of the way, and — to a small extent — control fire.

Pierce’s characters are perfect for entering burning buildings. I doubt she had this purpose in mind when designing their magic, since this book is part of a second series. But their powers allow her to keep the reality of a burning building and have people going in for the rescue.

I don’t have characters with those kinds of powers so I had to fudge a little. I decided that since the fire was started by magical means, it didn’t have to behave like a real fire. That way I sacrifice reality, but get to keep the rescue — which is more important to the purpose of the story than a realistic portrayal of a burning building.

So in this case, fantasy won out over reality. But the next case will be a whole different fight.

Jennifer A. Johnson is a newly published fantasy writer thanks to The Adventure of Creation anthology. She's still revising her first novel, but you can sign up for her free newsletter to pass the time.