Tiffany and What We Think We Know

Drawing of a piece of paper, with “Being born on the day of Ephiphany, her name simply had to be Tiffany” written on it. Caption reads: “The Tiffany Problem.”

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Tiffany and What We Think We Know by Iris Carden

The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible.”

-Mark Twain

I’ve been reading a bit about the “Tiffany Problem” lately.  

The term was coined by author Jo Walton to describe the issue, where something well researched isn’t accepted by readers because they think they know history.

The name “Tiffany” gets cited as an example because it’s a medieval name, short for “Theophenia”, often given to girls born on Epiphany day.  It went out of vogue in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and was rediscovered in the twentieth century.  Someone writing fiction set in the Middle Ages, or fantasy set in a Middle Ages type world, might use the name for a character, but readers will see it as a modern name, and it will be jarring.

Authors can change the names of characters to suit readers’ tastes, without losing too much historicity. However, there are other historical facts, readers sometimes won’t accept.

Putting non-white characters in a story set in the Roman Empire, or Medieval Europe bothers some readers, but in real history they were there.  If you look at a map of the Roman Empire, which went into Egypt and North Africa, you realise not everyone in the Empire was European. People moved around.  After the Roman Empire you had Medieval times which still had widespread shipping, so people were still moving, which meant people’s racial heritage might not reflect where they were living. Ships’ crews and dockworkers were especially would have come from everywhere shipping would have gone.

People live with ideas of what has gone before that aren’t accurate, then have trouble accepting stories that are set in the worlds that are closer to real history than their perceptions.

One of the things I love about Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, is that, while his fantasy is in a world similar to our own, and similar to some vague point in history before most modern conveniences, he includes a whole world, with lots of different cultures and different continents. All of these different races come together in a huge melting pot of the largest city, Ankh-Morpork.  He even includes several books featuring a young witch named Tiffany.  He deals with the “Tiffany Problem” by telling the story, and explaining the nature of the world it happens in.

The Tiffany Problem is an issue for authors writing historical fiction or fantasy fiction set in the past, but it can be solved with world-building, creating a sense of place and time where these things are normal, not something jarring. If you say people came from all the world into this port, then it makes sense that people from multiple races are there.  If the world building is done well enough, readers might even accept the name “Tiffany”.


Mark Twain quote: 

Goodreads quotes

The Tiffany Problem: 

Jo Walton, Putting Historical in Historical Fiction

Reality is Unrealistic

Jennifer R. Povey The Tiffany Problem – When History Makes No Sense


By Iris Carden

Iris Carden is an Australian indie author, mother, grandmother, and chronic illness patient. On good days, she writes. Because of the unpredictability of her health, she writes on an indie basis, not trying to meet deadlines. She lives on a disability support pension now, but her ultimate dream is to earn her own living from her writing.


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