How much can my historical novel change history?
June 15, 2012 | Written by admin
Gwynne wrote to say, “When working on historical fiction, if an author is using real people from history and not invented characters, what is the author’s responsibility to the character? I sometimes admit to feeling guilty of slander — I’m using real people, but my judgments of their deeds and motivations is quite different than that of historians. What is the ethical line between historical fiction and history?”
I don’t think there is a line connecting them. A novelist who is creating a story and weaving in actual people and events probably owes some debt to the reader to try and get the basic historical facts correct, I suppose (though even that is a questionable supposition, and many authors have altered facts and dates in order to tell a better story), but a novel isn’t a textbook. It doesn’t have a restriction that “you must have all your facts correct” or “you must accept the commonly held notions about a character’s motivations.” The author is inventing a story to entertain, maybe to explore themes and motivations, not to teach history. So, while I wouldn’t create a story in which the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on July 11, I see nothing wrong with an author creating a story depicting an interesting twist — that Roosevelt knew about the attack ahead of time, or that the attack was a rogue group of Japanese military, or that it was all a mistake done by aliens who were looking for Hawaiian shirts and pineapples.
It’s a novel. You can choose to tie events closely to historical facts, or you can choose to recreate history as you see fit in order to entertain readers.
With fiction, it’s the story that counts, not the accuracy of the events. Besides, if we all knew the deeds and motivations of historical events, there would be no need to explore them further. A novel allows us to consider alternative interpretations — that Richard III was actually a good guy, or that Sir Thomas More was a self-absorbed twit, or that Robert E. Lee wasn’t the military genius he’s been made out to be. All of those ideas have been played out in bestselling novels, and they all helped push forward dialogue while entertaining readers. Sometimes the ideas pitched in the novel are daft (Oliver Stone’s movie JFK was filled with tripe and innuendo), other times the ideas can be reasonable (take a look at Elizabeth Peter’s Murders of Richard III). But what your readers care about most is that the story is interesting, emotional, and readable.