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.
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 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.