A taste exact for faultless fact, by Ben Jeapes

I recently met a man who claimed to have been in the Special Forces, and immediately I was on my guard. Not that he might accidentally kill me with as much effort as it takes to swat a fly, but that he might be a nutter.

They pop up in every generation. In Britain, they generally claim to have been in the SAS. In the US they’ve performed unspecified heroics with the SEALs. I'm sure the Romans had ones who claimed to have been in the Praetorian Guard.

In this case, I ended up believing him and we got on well. So, what convinced me he was for real?

For a start, there was something about his tone that just sounded right. He had a genuine soldier’s mannerisms, right down to the lavatorial sense of humour. Then there was the sheer length and variety of his CV, covering a 30+ year career: most fantasists don’t have enough information to go into that kind of detail and their stories can be punctured with a few well-aimed questions. But ultimately it was his fallibility. His story wasn’t self-aggrandising. He wasn’t afraid of telling the times the joke was on him. The way he tried to trick his way through selection - and failed because the instructors had seen it all before. The cunning little schemes that backfired. The narrow escapes that were down to sheer luck rather than careful planning.

In short, it was authenticity.

Why is it that people so often have such difficulty trusting the basic facts, without feeling the need to supplement them with a bit of exaggerated fantasy?

In Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, three people desperately try to convince the Mikado that an execution has taken place which in fact has not. Their description begins more or less factually, as an execution might have gone, but they can’t resist layering on further detail until the pompous Pooh-Bah is claiming:

Now though you’d have said that head was dead
(For its owner dead was he),
It stood on its neck with a smile well-bred
And bowed three times to me!

Later, Pooh-Bah claims this was “Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.” What the Pooh-Bahs of this world can’t see is that the more nonsense they layer on, and the better they make themselves look, the less convincing they become.

We have the role model of Jesus in this, of course. I admit that helps my worldview. That is one reason I accept the canonical gospels (he is vulnerable, human, authentic) and not the non-canonical ones in which, for example, young Jesus goes all superhero, cursing people who upset him and bringing birds made of mud to life.

That’s Jesus, who was real. Some of us get to make up characters who don’t actually exist, but we try to make their existence convincing enough that people will enjoy reading about them and not throw the book across the room in irritation.

How authentic are your characters?

Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of 5 novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher, and technical writer. www.benjeapes.com


  1. You had me at the title, Ben. Great blog!

  2. Thanks Ben. Encouraging blog. It has made me revisit authenticity in my current writing project.

  3. This is so true. The authenticity and integrity of the gospel accounts rests on this truth about the character of Jesus. I think that is an argument used by CS Lewis too. This one thing stands up through all the centuries of rubbish surrounding the Christian faith - the authenticity of Jesus himself.


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