My Hate-Love Relationship with Historical Fiction

I love historical fiction. In fact, I’m currently binge reading, watching, and writing it right now. But I have a beef with it. (Does anyone even say that anymore? No? Oh, well.) If you’re curious, I’m reading Stalking Jack the Ripper, watching Reign, and writing a book set in the ancient world. Very different time periods, but all can easily fall into my hate-love with the genre.

So what is my issue with the genre?

My biggest pet peeve with historical fiction is when I look up the factual story and the factual story is MORE—more fascinating, bizarre, fun, gory, symbolic, or anything MORE.

Let’s look at a few examples:

In the movie The Revenant with Leonardo Dicaprio, Hugh Glass fights his way back from the wilderness to enact bloody revenge on the two who left him to die. In real life? He actually tracked down the two men and ultimately forgave them, because it was better for society. (One was a solider and the other a young man with a family.) I actually LOVE the real version, because I think it teaches us more about survival and sympathy and societal sacrifice. But forgiveness doesn’t feed into the bloody climax many expect, does it? (On a side note, Hugh Glass could’ve been a pirate…but that also doesn’t make it into the movie either. Boo.) Here’s an article if you’re interested in more info: The Real Story of ‘The Revenant’ is Far Weirder (and Bloodier) Than the Movie.

In Reign, the show follows Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, as she marries the Dauphin of France. And it’s entertaining, don’t get me wrong. Lots of betrayal, murder, and sex. But the real-life version, if the show had been expanded to show more years, has MORE. Nearly everyone loses their head, country, or both. (It’s very Game of Thrones.) What I find strange, though, is not the focus but some of the blatant inaccuracies portrayed as fact. For instance, the show takes (weird?) liberties in taking shots at the blond hair Francis has when Mary herself was famous for blond-red hair, while Francis was the brunet. They even go as far as to say all Scots have dark hair. (Or bringing her mother into it, when they never saw one another after her childhood.) In real life, over time, there are three husbands. (Perfect for a trilogy, no?) That aside, I’ll absolutely acknowledge that brutal story is not the target audience or goal for the romantic TV show on the CW. Which brings me to my next point…

I don’t blame the authors or any creators behind this. Why? Because I get it. Truth is often stranger than fiction. If you wrote down some of the actual events that happened, readers or viewers would have a harder time believing that than the completely fictionalized version of an event. Not to mention that life doesn’t serve a linear, symbolic purpose…and with stories, that’s the whole point, especially when you bring genres and expectations for that genre into play. Not to mention the traditional narrative viewers and readers expect from certain historical periods. 

It was discovered, for instance, that slaves were not used to build the Great Pyramids. Skilled (and paid) craftsman were, which is why they could stage protests. (In fact, the first protests we now know of.) But our fictional worlds have yet to reflect this. (Oh, did I mention they were often paid with beer? I mean, come on.)

History—and what we understand of history—is constantly changing, and the genre should change along with it.

I want to see more Norse women out on Viking Voyages, as skilled seafarers. (Source) I want to see black cowboys (Source). I want to see skilled craftsmen building the pyramids (Source). I want to see the female sailors on the doomed Franklin expedition, especially since the entire crew was reported to be male (Source). I want to see an all-female battalion in the Russian Revolution (Source). I want MORE.

I get that it might be a little strange to see some of your favorite historical figures (and narratives) in a different light. But why not?

Why not challenge the traditional narrative, especially if it’s backed up by science and other types of studies? Why not write a version that’s based in factual evidence more than on speculation? On the opposite end, why not write a version that owns the fact that it’s not based in reality at all, like My Lady Jane (where royalty can shape-shift into animals)? Why not push those limits and expectations of what historical fiction can be? (On a side note, there’s actually a really funny/enlightening Oatmeal comic on why this is so difficult, and you can read it here.)

Historical fiction has limitless, constantly changing possibilities, and I cannot wait to see how it morphs in the future.


21 thoughts on “My Hate-Love Relationship with Historical Fiction

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. I’d love to read about all of those historically-accurate scenarios you mentioned, especially the black cowboys and the all-female battalion in the Russian army!

    1. Thanks, Lydia! I always love talking to fellow readers who are excited about the same topics I am. There’s so many options out there to explore! Thank you for reading and commenting.

  2. Whenever I see a historical movie or show and they started with ‘based’ on real events, I know I’m seeing fiction. Interesting what gets wiped from the books like the participation of women.

    1. RIGHT?!? Honestly, I get changes. I do. There is only so much time in a movie or pages in a book, and there will always be expectations for certain genres, like a lot of romance for CW shows. But my issue is WHAT they decide to change, especially how much they cut out women from history. Even when they depict a time period that had awesome women (which all time periods did, of course), they tend not to focus on those journeys. Look at Egyptians for instance. Ancient Egyptian women not only could rule, but they could own property, deny marriages, and initiate divorce on their own. But I can’t think of anything that depicts that.

  3. I love this article; I studied history and now I’m a writer. Many assume that I write historical fiction and are surprised when I say I don’t. Yes I take inspiration from history, but I don’t write historical fiction for the very fact that I would want to be as accurate as possible, because the truth is more fascinating, that isn’t what people want anymore.
    I think historical fiction has gotten worse since the likes of Game of Thrones because all people want is blood and sex. Given people are so much more than this, I detest that this seems to be what people now focus on when producing historical fiction, especially for film and television.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting! I’m glad you enjoyed the article! Writing historical fiction is SO hard, and I think it’s so hard because there’s that marketing expectation (making everything about sex or blood) rather than telling the story of what happened, which…I mean, I get it. Sex and blood stories sell. And that’s cool and all, but there should be more variety. And I would LOVE to read a book that was as accurate as possible. (I’m actually attempting this right now, and geeeeez, is it hard. I spend more time researching than writing, but I feel like it’s worth it.) That being said, I love historical fiction like Stalking Jack the Ripper, which have disclosures at the front and back about what is “real” and what was fabricated solely for entertainment, including why the author decided to fabricate those details. Because of that discussion, I felt like I was walking away learning something, which I appreciated. I wish more historical fiction would have sections like that included.

  4. Happened to stumble upon this, and love your points. I believe that one of the great potentials of historic fiction is uncovering little historic nuggets, nuggets where a lot of the documentation may be lacking, and breathe life into them. One of my great pleasures is finding the nuggets which refuse to conform to the overall historic narrative. For example, it is probably assumed (without most folks thinking about it) that the phenomenon of women taking over a bar is a clearly contemporary thing. But I’m finding evidence of working women doing this before World War I! It’s in the liquor court testimony for the city of Pittsburgh, where all these “unescorted” women actually being in the majority in certain bars was quite the scandal. Of course they were tarred as prostitutes, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense that these women would be soliciting in a bar that had few men, does it? Looks more like they just wanted to have a good time with their friends.

    1. That is an AWESOME story. I love hearing about those sides of history…and I’m starting to think we’ve written a lot of down wrong on purpose. (Maybe to serve certain agendas?) It’s nice to see more and more people uncovering these gemstones so that we can understand more every day. Thank you for reading and sharing!

  5. unfortunately, the theme i’m currently using on my freebie WP doesn’t allow me to introduce a reblog or to allow me to thank you for your thoughtful post on historical fiction. altho I’ve posted somewhat on the same subject, mine was not as succinct as yours. I’ve been driven more than once to research subjects written about–and most appalled by accounts from the civil war–brutal.

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