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.