How To Write Historical Fiction
by Ross Crawford
When it comes to writing a good story there are no definite, concrete ‘RULES YOU MUST OBEY’. If you are a skilled enough writer, you can make even the most hare-brained idea work, convention be damned. Quentin Tarantino’s playfully warped interpretation of World War Two in Inglourious Basterds is a prime example. Yet after assessing the merits and faults of both Spartacus and Vikings, I thought, perhaps brazenly, that it would be interesting to outline some of the common pitfalls of historical fiction.
In this study, we will branch out from television to envelop film in a big, affectionate cuddle (if we like it) or a brutish, rib-cracking bear hug (if we don’t). Without further ado, let us begin.
DO: ‘True Invention’ or more straightforwardly, ‘BE SENSIBLE!’.
In 1995, the writer and historian, Robert Rosenstone, proposed a theory on historical fiction which he dubbed, ‘true’ and ‘false invention’. Essentially, ‘true invention’ is engagement with the broader historical reality and serious consideration of various historiographical sources. Characters or events can be invented, so long as they adhere to the generally accepted historical ‘truth’ of the setting. Predictably, ‘false invention’ takes the exact opposite approach. With wilful ignorance, scenarios are created that completely contradict what we know of the time period.
In essence, this methodology promotes a responsible approach to the depiction of history, while still allowing for creativity to flourish. However, it is very notable that Rosenstone’s examples, Mississippi Burning and Glory, are both set in relatively modern historical time periods. The former is set in the south of America in 1964 and the latter during the American Civil War in the 1860s. Both have plentiful extant documents and literature that can provide considerable insight into the time period. Yet what if one wished to write a story centring around Pictland? In theory, you would be afforded much greater freedom and the lines between ‘true’ and ‘false invention’ would begin to blur.
Furthermore, rarely do historians ever reach a consensus on a particular time period. If one book presents a totally different historical ‘truth’ to the next, which one do you believe?
So there are clear limitations to this theory and in many ways, it can be boiled down to simple common sense. For example, much of Pictish culture may remain unknown to us but clearly they weren’t flying around in Apache helicopters and taking cute Twitter selfies. ‘True invention’, ‘being sensible’, call it what you want. Regardless, it’s probably the single most important maxim to take to heart.
DO: Be authentic and accurate (where possible).
Some of the following may fly in the face of ‘true invention’ but hey, this isn’t an exact science. As mentioned in my Vikings review, when faced with a decision between accuracy and authenticity, prioritise the latter. If you can evoke the feeling of the time period, immerse the audience in the world, then you have won half the battle. If you can interest the audience enough, they can consult the real history later. Yet as always, there is a balance to be struck here. Abandon accuracy too frequently and authenticity will undoubtedly suffer, to the extent that it could well undermine the credibility of the whole story. And admirable as it may be, slavish accuracy will rarely lead to a compelling narrative.
Like a pair of bickering siblings, these two qualities may not like one another very much but they both complement and inform the other. So don’t abandon either.
DON’T: Have an atheistic protagonist in a time of religious fervour.
As mentioned in the Vikings review, one of the most prominent offenders of this trope is Kingdom of Heaven. Orlando Bloom’s character, Balian, loses his faith after the death of his wife and becomes disillusioned with Christianity. Jaded, cynical and in dire need of an existential epiphany, Balian travels to Jerusalem and is quickly swept up in the tumult of the Third Crusade. The film takes a 21st century Humanist standpoint on the Crusades, with Balian as our conduit, and generally does an admirable job of portraying some of the iniquities of both the Christians and the Muslims. At times, the film is so desperate to be balanced that it becomes heavy-handed and preachy, yet overall, it highlights that both sides of the conflict were equally at fault. Therefore, we might identify this as an example of ‘true invention’.
However, depicting Balian as a humanist/atheist devalues much of the religious insight of the film. He is our main character; it is through his eyes that we see the world. And to Balian, both the Christians and the Muslims are as bad as each other: warlike, merciless and relentlessly ambitious. Beyond this, there is little attention paid to the actual ideologies of the two religions. If Balian had a crisis of faith mid-way through the film, we may have been afforded a truly in-depth study of the problems of organised religion. But with such a cynical protagonist, we are denied this. In truth, Kingdom of Heaven has very little to say about religion itself. If it has a message, it is quite simply, ‘Why can’t we all get along?’. It busies itself with condemning loathsome warmongers without questioning the mechanisms that allows the exploitation of faith for nefarious ends.
DO: Use modern swears.
Some grumbled at Deadwood‘s panoply of inventive vulgarity, decrying the use of certain terms as ‘inauthentic’. Yet inarguably, the entertainingly lurid vocabulary of Al Swearengen and the other Deadwood residents ended up being one of the true highlights of that show. Strictly speaking, our historical ancestors may not use exactly the same words and phrases that we do but nasty insults, vicious put-downs and good old-fashioned vulgarity are present no matter where you look in history. There is an immediacy granted by the use of modern swear-words as the audience instantly understands what is being conveyed. We would certainly want to avoid awkward imitations of Shakespearean dialogue wherever possible. (Admittedly old Will certainly came up with some brilliant insults. Personal favourite: “Away, you mouldy rogue, away!”)
Apart from these relatively subjective reasons, there is real historical evidence that ancient Romans were just as foul-mouthed as we are, if not more so! For example, take the famously obscene poem, ‘Catullus 16’. WARNING: Don’t click on this if you’re offended by some naughty language!
DON’T: Shoehorn in a romance sub-plot.
Braveheart and Gladiator are the worst offenders here. In both films, the primary motivation for both protagonists is to avenge the death of their wife (or at least the death of their wife awakens their sense of moral duty). Both films take great pains to emphasise the undying love Wallace and Maximus hold for their sadly departed love. Yet both films fatally undermine this message by having them succumb to the throes of lust with another woman almost immediately.
Spartacus intelligently subverts this trope. After the death of his wife, the titular hero submits to such carnal pleasures, yet he is doomed to never find true love again. If you absolutely have to have a sex scene in your historical tragedy, this is the way to do it.
DO: Research material culture.
Sorry Braveheart fans but I’m taking another swing at Mel Gibson’s monolith! Braveheart is a great film. It’s impeccably plotted, well-acted and hits all the right emotional beats. But it’s not a good historical film. One of the principal reasons for this also happens to be one of the most easily avoidable: the film grossly misrepresents the attire of the Scots. Perhaps it’s not as romantic to depict the Scots as near identical in appearance to the English, but it’s much closer to the truth. The kilted, claymore wielding, woad-painted William Wallace is a bizarre amalgam of various tropes, centring around the concept of the ‘noble savage’. Half-Pict, half-West Highlander, he bears literally no resemblance to the medieval Lowland Scot of history.
Much of this may seem like historical pedantry but in the case of Braveheart, it has been a pernicious and troubling problem. Scottish tourism is now almost entirely enslaved to Gibson’s interpretation of Scotland; to abandon it would be economic suicide. At the moment, there are many Scots who loathe the Braveheart connection; just look at the reaction to the Braveheart inspired statue at the Wallace Monument which was attacked so often it had to be ensconced in a protective cage. (Yes, ‘Freedom’ is trapped in a cage. The irony is palpable.)
Many people are more than happy to accept that what is presented in film, or television, or in a book, is reflective of historical reality. If it doesn’t, their understanding is at least flawed and at worst it can be extremely damaging to cultural identity.
DO: Be Black Death.
This little-known film was first released with little fanfare in 2010. Set in the fourteenth century when plague was ravaging the population of Europe, Black Death evokes a hugely foreboding, hostile atmosphere. The film explores the dark corners of organised religion; the lengths the faithful will go to protect (or punish) the faithless. Such a thematic concept matches up perfectly with the grim historical setting, a symbiosis that elevates the film to greatness, while an opposite trajectory is followed by the film’s characters who descend into an ever darker, plague-infested world.
DON’T: Be Season of the Witch.
The Crusades, witch trials and bubonic plague; all in the same film?! Please, just no. Everything Black Death does right, Season of the Witch does wrong. Even Nicolas Cage’s boggle-eyed, over-acting can’t save it.
Hopefully this has provided an overview of the most obvious problems that can befall historical fiction. Embarking on a historical narrative is a brave move; you’re always walking a very wobbly tight-rope between accuracy and story-telling. Yet with some effort, the former does not always have to be surrendered to the latter.
And Hollywood execs, if you’re listening, I’d be really interested in developing my Picts-in-Apache-helicopters idea. Get in touch, it could be huge.