Chip MacGregor

June 15, 2012

How much can my historical novel change history?


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.

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  • hastycrew says:

    Very true.. Thank you for that motivating explanation.

  • Abroadwriters says:

    I have a serious problem with what you’re saying because all people who read books have a common knowledge. When false interpretations are created, people want to believe they’re true. That’s the gift of a good storyteller.

    There’s too much false information out in the world, we don’t need more. How many people believe that Hitler didn’t have concentration camps? Facts are interesting, work with them unless you want to create a pure fantasy.

    Often writers write historical fiction and they’re completely unaware of cultural differences, language, climate. It’s horrible. If you have a passion for history, why falsify it?

    Richard Dawkins writes about memes, we have to be careful about what memes we duplicate. 

    • Chip says:

      Why “falsify” it? Because you’re creating an interesting story, that’s why. You seem to be under the impression there is one correct way of viewing history — but that’s a simplistic way of viewing history. One author can make Richard III an evil manipulator, another can make him a misunderstood hero, and a third can make him a zombie. 

      Or, to take a more contemporary view, one person could write a novel about George W Bush and make him a tough, conservative Texan, another could make him an over-his-head cowboy who is pushed around by his veep, and a third could make him a manipulative schemer who just wanted to enrich his oil buddies. Who gets to decide which depiction is true? 

      A novel is just that — fiction, NOT a story on which we base our historical constructs. So it IS “pure fantasy” as you put it, since the characters, dialogue, and situations are all invented. (And I find your Hitler analogy weak, since I’m not aware of any legitimate author claiming in a novel that Hitler didn’t have concentration camps.) 

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    My concern for historical fiction (and especially creative non-fiction) is that someone from a different culture or a future time might mistake it for truth.

    (If you’re a geek like me, you may recall the sci-fi spoof Galaxy Quest in which earth TV sit-coms were understood by the aliens to be factual records.)

  • Tiffany Amber Stockton says:

    I’m not 100% in favor of rewriting history to suit the story, but I will agree with an author of a novel having quite a bit of room in literary license when depicting historical figures or events. “There’s adequate evidence to support that view.” That’s the key point to me. You can go against the accepted or norm for a real event or person as long as there is enough evidence to support you.

    Of course, if you’re going completely off the truth with something like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, that’s a different story altogether. 🙂

    But, in my opinion, you owe it to the event or person to be as accurate as possible within the confines of the evidence available to support your depiction/claim.

  • dianadart says:

    Thanks for addressing a question I’ve been pondering for some time. And double thanks for the recommendations on Richard III novels – I still think that a certain author twisted our perception of that guy forever 😉

    Further question – are there any liability issues when dealing with historical characters? For example, can ancestors actually sue an author for slander, should the novel’s theme/plot line/etc. cast a bad light on someone? Yes, I may be paranoid, but it’s worth putting that worry aside right out of the gate.

    • Chip says:

      Yes, Bill more or less invented the evil Richard legend. That’s why I recommend people read Josephine Tey. Tell me what you think. 

      As to your other question: I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t give legal advice. However, my attorney has said to me there are almost no restrictions on dealing with historical characters. We had a situation a couple years ago where an author we represent, Ginger Garrett, was writing a novel that included a very unflattering portrait of Sir Thomas Moore (or “A Man for All Seasons” fame). She basically revealed there are other accounts that reveal Moore as being a bigoted, violent misogynist, and not just the Catholic hero of that play. A few people (including an editor) were pretty unhappy with that portrayal. To which I said, “Tough.” There’s adequate evidence to support that view, and besides, the author was creating a NOVEL — something that is clearly a work of fiction. So my view was pretty much others were going to have to grow up and deal with it, since history is rarely as neat as we want it, people are rarely as one-dimensional as movies want to make them, and books allow us to explore alternative realities. 

  • Mjagears says:

    Amen and Amen. Story is king.

    I am tempted to say more because this is my soapbox, but I won’t since it’s the internet. 🙂

  • Iola says:

    Chip says: “I see nothing wrong with an author creating a story depicting an interesting twist — that Roosevelt knew about the attack ahead of time…”

    No problem there at all. That’s exactly what some history commentators think – at least, that’s what I was taught when I studied it in history in 1988 (in New Zealand). And if Roosevelt didn’t know, some of his advisors did.

    So, you can absolutely change some things when there is potential for it to be true. But don’t try and made Hitler out to be a good guy. That’s stretching history too far.

    • Chip says:

      Agreed. And, if you saw “Inglorious Basterds,” where a group of Americans shoot Hitler and his acolytes in a movie theater, you’ll have an appreciation that sometimes a story simply takes history and plays with it. 

  • Ruth A. Douthitt says:

    Good points, Chip. One of my all time favorite books is “Ragtime” which does an excellent job of blending history and fiction together for one fantastic read.

    I am currently researching for my first adult historical fiction work that I will begin next year (Lord willing…) and am excited that it will be set in WWII. It will be fun to intertwine historical events with fictional accounts.

    • Chip says:

      I’ve always liked Josephine Tey’s “The Daughter of Time,” since it offers a completely new perspective to Richard III. Definitely worth reading. 

    • Ruth A. Douthitt says:

      Will look it up. Thanks for the recommendation!

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