Thursday, 27 August 2009

Following on...

Anita asks “Is this an ethical dilemma? Does fiction need policing in case it misleads the reader? Or is it simply the literary mafia telling us not to watch or read anything which may be slightly historically inaccurate? And what about the premise that history is written by the victors - so how true is true?”

Whether it is the literary mafia or someone who has been hurt by a fictional slur on an ancestor and has decided to rush into defensive print, the discussion has raised a topic I had never previously considered. I simply accepted that it was OK for authors to invent the thoughts of real characters in history. Yes, fiction sometimes casts a character in a bad light, but it can also do the opposite, and redeem a character who has hitherto received a bad press at the hands of writers. Jarman’s We Speak No Treason did it for Richard III.
We are all individuals, and will always have our own prejudices and favourites. One woman’s blameless character can be another woman’s vicious thug. But it does seem suddenly dangerous to write about characters within living memory of people alive today.

My own taste in history has mostly been pre-1600, but the Victorian period has always been popular. Now that 1900-1950 is suddenly accepted as “history,” stories set between those dates are going to involve events and sometimes people who may be alive today. They will certainly have sons and daughters to fight their corner if they feel the written character in any way defames or discredits their ancestor.

The chance of someone complaining that Anne Boleyn’s character has been defamed is unlikely, since relatives are likely to be few and the connection obscure. The further back in history the character lived, the less likely it is the author will stir a reaction, however much they blacken the character. Most authors feel a certain responsibility in this regard, however, and deal carefully with real characters.

Stories set pre 1600 seem to suffer more from the attitude that “accuracy doesn’t matter anyway – it’s all fiction.” Certainly there is less written evidence pre-1600, it is difficult to consult and what facts there are may be awkward, contradictory or downright inconvenient. Faced with a fact that doesn’t fit, many authors simply ignore it and write what suits their story. Some people live happily with this, and others find it outrageous. Respect for history and scholarship far beyond my own will probably make me stick to the facts. I’m only too glad that scholars have taken the time and the trouble to record the facts that we do have from the distant past.

As for what real characters thought…that is difficult. Reading between and around the facts and making my own deductions about the character’s decisions and thought processes may be claiming a perceptivity I do not have. I don’t often write about real characters, but I have included Sir Thomas Wharton in TILL THE DAY GO DOWN and he is reappearing in my newly begun story along with some other historical characters. I’ll use what facts I can find about his/their personality, try not to invent too much and deal with them as fairly as I can.

Giving them speech and actions seems better than giving them thoughts, perhaps.


Anne Gilbert said...


Ithink you've raised some legitimate points here. Let me sayc at the outset, I'm cwriting something "pre-1600", and it's real history, but it's kind of ca "hybrid" since it has what might be called "fantasy" or "sccience fiction" elements in it. Nevertheless, I've stuck to "real" history and "real" science as far cas I can. I don't know if I've "defamed" anybodyc, but CI may havce made one historical character a bit "nicer" in some ways, than he probably was. I have also had to do a lot of "inventing" since there are some historical characters that play pivotal parts in what I'm writing, about whom not a lot is reliably known. So what do you do in a situation like this? I know a lot of people will just say "stick to the facts", but when there aren't a lot of facts, there's obviously a problecm. Which is partly the reason why I am writing the way I'm writing. I think it's important to portray something accurately, where it's known, and if cyou were writing a novel about, I don't know, csomeone in the Kennedy family, or some such, there might well bge people who would get upset if they thought you "defamed" their antececdcents. But then, I'm not writing about the Kennedy family, and if I ever write something in a "recent" historical period, I will probably write about mosttly fictional people. After call, there's pelnety of "backdrop:" from 1900-1950 to work with, and you don't really have to add "historical" people to make the period come alive. All you have to do is some reasonable research.c
Anne G

Jen Black said...

The whole question has made me think about something I'd never considered even as a reader, so I'm glad it came up. The different viewpoints in the comments are interesting, too.