Guest Post: All History is Fiction

Don’t Knock Historical Fiction – All History is Fiction!

As a writer of historical fiction, I’m sometimes asked how much “real history” I put in my books. My stock answer is: ALL history is fiction. This sometimes baffles people, but most often irritates them. Please allow me to explain.

What is “Real History”?

History is simply an account of what happened, which is passed down to us through the ages from various writers, although it may have started as oral history. That’s right, writers, some of whom called themselves “historians”. Most were simply citizens recording what they had either personally experienced, or just what they thought about events that had occurred during, or even before, their time. In every single case, they were biased.

Science tells us that there are two types of bias: the bias that comes from an observer’s personal viewpoint, and the deliberate bias that comes from motivation.

The Bias of Viewpoint

As to the first, any physicist will tell you that the individual experience – background, education, personal experiences, and so on – of the observer will color and perhaps even influence the event being witnessed. More importantly, was the observer actually at the event he/she is describing? Did they see the action, or hear the words spoken? In almost all cases, they are recreating an event from documents and verbal testimony of “eyewitnesses”, who (if they were really at the scene, unlike many who claim to have been) may have been extremely limited in what they actually witnessed. Could any one person have witnessed an entire battle, let alone the complete beginning of the birth of the Abramic faith or the French Revolution? So the writer is simply putting together a conglomeration of conflicting testimonies, doing their best to make all as reasonable as possible.

In the best of cases, those witnesses were not trained observers or recorders, anyhow. Such second-hand accounts are sketchy at best. Think of the Warren Commission Report. If we cannot even know exactly what went on with an event in 1963 that was witnessed by thousands in person and on television by millions of people, how can we know what went on during events hundreds and thousands of years ago?

As to “primary documents”, have you ever written a memo about a corporate event you were involved in, or a letter to a friend relating some incident in your life? Just between you and me, were you totally honest about what happened? Did you paint yourself in the glaring light of “truth”, or perhaps embellish your role just a tiny bit? Did you ever once make the other guy the hero? Yeah, well, all of those olden-time folks who wrote their memoirs, or letters to friends, or whatever, did exactly the same. It’s human nature.

Deliberate Bias

For the second bias, the old saying: “The victors get to write history”, has a lot more meaning than the surface value. In some cases, many of the ancient monarchs hired historians to write of their exploits. That becomes little more than propaganda. In many cases, such as Shakespeare’s “Richard III”, it was politically and financially expedient for him to explain events in a way that would be pleasing to the sitting monarch, Elizabeth Tudor. Is that an accurate portrayal of history?

What Can a Writer Do?

So, my view of writing historical fiction is to go with what the “historians” tell us as much as possible. If several historians agree, then a writer should not violate that information. However, I must realize that they were no more “there” than I was, and that my version of what happened, within the bounds of known data and logic, is just as valid as theirs. Maybe more so: at least I label mine as fiction on the cover.

People love to read about certain historical figures, no matter how many books or movies exist to depict them. In fact, the more famous (or infamous), the more they will be portrayed, whether legendary (Hercules, King Arthur, Robin Hood) or real (Alexander, Hitler, Henry VIII). The trick is to find a unique approach, a different story, that will give the reader a fresh outlook on the character and the society they impacted. In many cases, historical fiction novels rely on the presence of real, famous people to draw the reader into the fictional characters.

A Final Word

In any case, recognize that the validity of the history described by the story is only as real as the writer could or chose to make it real. To a greater or lesser extent, all history is fiction.


 

Don MakerDon Maker is a credentialed English teacher in Northern California. He has had the good fortune to wander extensively across the globe, and is a featured travel writer for Yahoo Voices. He is the author of “Zenobia”, an historical fiction novel, and “Miranda’s Magic”, a young adult magical-realism novel. A board member of the California Writers Club, Mt. Diablo Branch, Don is currently preparing “The Grindstone” for publication.

You can find him on Twitter and Yahoo Voices as well as on his website where he talks about everything from education to sports.

 

6 comments

  1. Andy Szpuk

    Yes, I think there is some validity in this observation, and one of the less attractive features of history books is the endless delivery of dates, times and facts, incidents without fleshing out the characters, making engagement more difficult for the reader, although I have noticed that even some history writers employ narrative techniques borrowed from fiction to lift their accounts from what can often be quite a dry read.

    • Carrie Slager

      That’s very true, Andy. One of my favourite nonfiction books (The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt) actually does use narrative techniques you’d typically see in fiction. Toby Wilkinson’s rather biting wit makes a somewhat boring topic very interesting.

    • Don Maker

      Andy, thanks for the comments. Have you ever read Daniel Boorstin? He does not bog his histories down with dates, but brings them alive with anecdotes and personal observations. Very interesting.

  2. Lady Fancifull

    I like this post very much. It’s easy to see that even events in our own lives which we experience (large or small) are coloured by who and where we are at any moment in time. Not only does the observer, by being there, influence the event itself (more later) but we will all interpret what we see, feel, hear, experience. I am minded of that by very trivial day to day events, which I may experience, and a companion may also experience/observe. But who we are selects what we actually notice, and the conclusions we draw.

    Re the INFLUENCING of event – I think of the scientific model and, for example the famed double blind etc etc. Though every attempt may be made to eliminate ‘bias’, until everyone’s individual input is flat-lined by taking human involvement out of the picture, even if the clinician and the patient have no idea whether placebo or active drug is administered, the nature of the relationship between the individual clinician and the individual patient will affect the emotional state – and thus the biochemistry of the patient, causing them to feel more trusting/safe/hopeful/relaxed or distrustful/anxious about what they are receiving.

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