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.