A Cautionary note on “Historical” Fiction

There is one important word in the phrase ‘Historical Fiction.’

Clue: That word is NOT ‘Historical.’

If you want to learn history pick up a text-book, or a first hand account, or watch a documentary. Historical Fiction is fiction, first and foremost.

I won’t deny that some historical fiction novels are extremely accurate while others show brief glimpses of accuracy but you should not come to the genre actively seeking enlightenment on what life was like ‘back then.’

What it is good at is giving you an interest in a particular aspect of history, making you want to learn about certain events or times. For example, I read the first two books in Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series and decided I wanted to know more about Genghis Khan so I looked him up online and I went to the library. At no point did I take Iggulden’s word as fact until I had it confirmed by a historian.

Now I’m not saying this is a bad thing, far from it. I love the Conqueror series but I’m also aware that it’s primary objective is to entertain, not educate. Iggulden is better than most when it comes to historical accuracy (Although he learned it after his Julius Caesar saga)

Here’s a few quick thoughts on historical fiction and some ways it differs from other kinds of fiction:

1. Character:

there’s lots of character driven fiction out there but for historical fiction the centrality of characters is imperative (doesn’t that sound awful fancy?).  The thing with historical fiction is we already know how it’s going to end – except in books that use only a historical setting with completely original characters and plot. if we don’t know a quick search on BBC history can tell us the answer. We know Brutus killed Caesar, we know Genghis invaded China, we know Rome won the Punic wars or that the North won the American civil war, we know that America ‘won’ the space race (Although I maintain that’s because they decided what constituted winning).

Therefore Historical fiction cannot keep us in suspense about the larger plot, especially if the main character is one of the more famous participants in these events. The only remedy for this is to make the characters extremely vivid, make it easy to relate to them, make us care about them so that we grow to care about the specifics of what happens to them. The subplot or romantic interest becomes important, even the details become more vivid. Yes Brutus killed Caesar in the senate house but hat was each of them feeling? How aware was Caesar of what was going to happen? Does the author make Brutus an assertive paragon of the republic bravely doing what had to be done or is he a cowardly senator pressured into it?

All of these are choices made by the author, they are what make it fiction.

2. Learn your history:

Just because the reader should not expect to learn any history doesn’t meant he author shouldn’t either. I’m not denying that people learn stuff historical fiction, I’m just saying it’s difficult to separate the history from the fiction.

actual inaccuracies Vs. Picking a version of history

author’s have to change stuff. They use their own interpretations, they pick specific versions of history or sides of a debate, they take advantage of periods when history is a little fuzzy or biased, sometimes they leave bits out to streamline the narrative, sometimes they make slight alterations to either a person’s character or an event to fit the story they are trying to tell, sometimes they fill in the gaps in history. All of these are choices. To make a choice you must first be informed on the subject.

There is NO excuse for shoddy research.

For example: Iggulden changed/fabricated a  lot of Caesar’s early childhood so that he cold set up his relationship with Brutus and explain their opposition more clearly. That’s fine. Getting simple things wrong, things which do not affect the plot in any way such as the  typical menu at a Roman feast, is just plain lazy(I’m looking at you Napier).

3. characters should not educate other characters!

I cannot state this enough but author’s should not try and catch the audience up or set the scene by having characters monologue the bleeding obvious at other characters (Yeah, I just used monologue as a verb. Got a problem with that?)

I mean that characters shouldn’t have a conversation where they explain to each other things about their world that they should already know by virtue of living in that world. No generals should not explain the structure of the army to each other, I’d have hoped they learned that before they became generals. Characters from the same city/nation/faction should not explain their customs to each other. Basically any conversation that starts with ‘as you already know…’ should set off warning bells.

But however will the audience understand? 

Forgive me if I’m wrong but isn’t that what narrators are for? Telling the story, explaining events, drawing the reader in, all that type of thing? John Stack has an excellent way of fitting this kind of exposition into dialogue without making it sound contrived. He has two main characters, one is a soldier in the legions from Rome. The other is a Greek and is captain of one of the first vessels in Rome’s tiny navy. In this context it would make sense that the characters have to explain stuff to each other as they work together. One doesn’t understand sea tactics, the other doesn’t get footsoldiers. One doesn’t understand Roman customs, the other Greek.

Please, if your characters explain stuff to each other make sure they have good reason to do so. If not ask yourself’ would it be better to leave it to my narrator to divulge this piece of information?’ Or, better yet ‘does my reader actually need to know this?’

I like historical fiction, there’s plenty of good novels out there and it’s a great way to get interested in history and discover things that you might otherwise have never heard about but remember that it’s first and foremost about the story.

Prostitution in Game of Thrones

There has been much criticism of Game of Thrones, especially of the TV series. It’s been accused of being sexist, racist, sexist, too violent, sexist and sexist again. Now most of this critisim has been levelled at the HBO adaptation so I’ve studiously ignored it but I was at a friend’s house the other day and she said she’d just finished reading the first book. While she thought it was good, it was far too sexist for her tastes. I challenged her on this and her response ran somehitng like ‘Oh the prostitution! it’s everywhere! so many prostitutes, is nobody safe?!’ only less hysterical.

So i decided it’s time to weigh in. I’m half-way through a storm of Swords part 2 so this will only really about the books up until there, not the TV show as that’s covered in more detail elsewhere.

SPOILERS AHOY!

The show added a lot of prostitution that wasn’t really in the original but I found the original quite feminist. Look at characters like Arya Stark, Daenerys Targareyn or Brienne Whatshername, especially in the later books, and it’s clear that there a numerous incidents of strong powerful women being progressive and assertive and all that good stuff in a world that doesn’t necessairly cater for this.

The negative first: Yes there is quite a lot of sex in the books. So? sex on it’s own is not a problem and I never felt that it was used gratuitously. Sexuality is used usually for plot points (i.e. when Sansa gets her period she’ll be forced to marry and sleep with Joffrey), to create a specific atmosphere (How creeped out were you when Robert Arryn was still breastfeeding at age 9?), or for character development (see the numerous scenes between Danerys and Drogo). So where does the negative come into it? Yeah, all the prostitutes are women, the men were too busy dying in various wars to branch out into prostitution. There are scenes of sexual domination over women and men often brag about it to other men because that’s what they do in testorone fueled war filled society. But at no point did I feel the narrator was condoning any of this behaviour, the only time sexual objectification of women felt normalised (for me at least) was when a particular character was normalising it. In this way we learned more about that character and his (or her) world view. Yes there are scenes of violent sex but for them not to take place at all would be implausible. Even in modern warfare and modern civilisation sex is a weapon and a tool and rapes occur all the time. In a society that is arguably more violent than ours it just wouldn’t be believable if it didn’t take place. G. R. R. Martin never claims that this is a desirable state of being.

The positive : As I mentioned there’s strong women (I might cover that in more detail some other time), the sex isn’t always a bad thing, and the prostitutes aren’t crawling out of the walls. It’s more the references to them that are everywhere. Frequently men are bragging about sexual exploits that probably never happened. Again we are learning about the characters themselves, this kind of dialogue doesn’t necessarily denigrate the women in and of itself. In fact there are occasions where it makes more of a show of the man who said it. But what about the poor prostitutes? I hear you ask.  Don’t they get a voice at all? Isn’t pushing them into the background as merely a conversation starter for men just as bad as sexually objectifying them? Well it would be if that was what was happening but it isn’t. In a world dominated by swords chivalry and patriarchy many women use their sexuality as an extremely effective weapon. Look at Cersei Lannister, her incestuous relationship with Jaime was born from love but also allows her to ensure the succession of the throne is entirely in Lannister hands. She was wed to a man she did not love and rather than weep and become a broken woman she took control of her sex life, refused to have his children and proceeds to gain more and more control over King Robert, then King Joffrey as the series progresses. She is effectively Queen of the land. Look at Daenerys Targareyn, how she grows as a character through her self affirming marriage with Drogo. One of the first positive acts in her journey to become Queen is loosing her virginity. Both sold as brides, virtually prostituted to gain power for their male relatives, yet they turn the situation around and claim the power for themselves. The Game of Thrones has room for Queens as well as Kings, and these Queens are just as well equipped using their sexuality in nefarious manipulative and even joyous life affirming ways. Even when it boils down to the prostitutes themselves Daenarys is virtually sold to Khal Drogo, Chataya is a pretty smooth business lady, Alayaya is shown as intelligent and kind, teaching herself to read, even Shae becomes a very important character despite some uncertainty over her motives in being with Tyrion (He pays her wages after all). The fact that Tyrion’s first wife was a prostitute turns out to be hugely important to his character development but again, I did not feel that the girl was necessarily portrayed as beaten down and exploited. She got paid for what she did and paid well, she chose to enter into it and Martin even tells s the story through his voice so that the violent sexual domination that followed is more of a psychological of profile of Tyrion’s inferiority complex than anything else. The girl is removed from the violence itself in this detached account, the narrative did not revel in it.

The setting : Once Upon A Time Tolkien became the god of all that is fantasy literature. And it was then decreed that all fantasy can only take place in a homogenous middle ages European society with magic thrown in. I think it was Ben Yahtzee Crowshaw who blamed Tolkien for the fact that the phrase ‘Standard Fantasy Setting’ can now be uttered without the slightest hint of irony. I mentioned the setting once or twice earlier in the post and I’d like to analyze it here. Despite all the ideology of fantasy as  genre where anything can happen it still has to be believable. That’s why, when author’s throw in tropes like magic, they tend to set their stories in a recognisable place where humans also believed in magic. hence the domination of the medieval from where people legitimately believed this stuff could happen. Along with that belief comes the limited opportunities for women etc.

I want to look at how this specifically functions in Game of Thrones though. Martin’s book is, above all else, political. it’s a character driven struggle for power and dominance over the rest of the land. To fit in all the violence and intrigue and to tie in with what most fantasy fans believe it makes sense that they’re fighting for is a Kingship. Now in a land like this the army and formation fighting is necessary. History has shown that facing this kind of weaponry armour, arms, stamina etc. are required, it takes a hardy bunch of lads. Women genetically speaking are not predisposed to develop the kind of muscle necessary and in societies like this they were not often given the chance to, more on that in a minute. (However Martin includes several female warriors and leaders: Danaerys, Brienne, The free folk beyond the wall, the leader of one of Tyrion’s wild hordes is a woman – So Martin does accept that women are just as good as men on the battle field before anyone gets angry about that). The men dominate in the ranks however, and frankly that’s because most of them are going to get killed. When all the men die the population needs to replenish itself so that’s one major reason why women are largely absent from the frontline in this series, logically speaking you need more women than men to reproduce quickly. Also in a society that has so many wars and conflicts that at this point I’m beginning to lose track, it’s natural that the vast majority of that societies’ wealth will be spent on wars. therefore, no universities. The careers for the common people are limites to trades. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker, that sort of thing. A lot of these trades involve quite heavy physical labour that quite frankly is difficult and dangerous after about the sixth month of pregnancy, why are you pregnant? Oh yeah, because everybody died. However some women do not become attached or tied down, and even the ones that do often have careers in this world. How many landladies, female innkeepers, blacksmith, cooks  etc. are scattered throughout the books? Some of the women who are prostitutes are clearly doing it because they want to, look at Chataya’s in the later books.

Yes there is a lot of prostitution and un-consensual sex but in a series based around a throne, therefore an aristocracy, women are valued for breeding, preserving lines, purity etc. With purely logical reasoning it’s no surprise that the story Martin set out to write requires women’s sexuality has paramount importance to the plot. It simply wouldn’t be believable that a land with this kind of psyche wouldn’t have prostitutes. I think Martin handles his female characters admirably and for me, even the prostitutes have become some of the most memorable characters of the series.

Postscript: Let us remember that there are no equal opportunities for men in Westeros either. I have yet to hear someone saying that it’s sexist that all the men are conscripted into armies, sent off to war and killed before most of them get through puberty.