Daily Archives: August 3, 2012

History and Fiction: Talking Turning Points

For the month of August, I thought I might take a closer look at some of the intersections between history and fiction and what we can learn from them.  In a very real way, most fiction claims to be some form of pseudo history–we are telling the tale of what we want our readers to believe are real people in a real world, and often the very best authors are the ones who can make us think all this really happened.  In that sense, I think that fiction almost always has something more to learn, within reason, from history.

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Turning points.  Those exclusive moments of epic drama where everything and everyone revolves around one small but indispensable instant in time and monumental questions are answered.  It might be something as massive as the movement of an army or a feat of superhuman intellect and it might something as subtle as a single, silent decision or misplaced footstep.  What they all in common is the fact that they usually “decide” everything and afterward cometh the anti-climax.  Real life and history is almost universally more complex, and the best authors are the ones who can leave you with a sense of that complexity.

Gettysburg: The “turning point” of the American Civil War

In a very real way, the divergence here between history and fiction has to do with their origins.  In history, we are studying the actions of literally millions of unique minds and personalities that operate through God-given free will.  Those minds are are interacting with a nature that is external to them and that they cannot control.  Often, they cannot even control themselves.  The Author ordering this history writes so large that, like a person looking at a single screen pixel in a microscope, even the best historian is unable to grasp the whole of the picture unless parts of it are revealed to him by the Author Himself.  Thus, we are left connecting dots as best we can in what appears to us to be a very chaotic world chock full of contradictions.  It is the historian’s job to try to make sense of as much of the mess as possible and express it to others in a way that can be understood.  As a result, good historians can usually find several turning points or key factors that explain the outcome of a story, each one as important as the others and each coming at a completely different point in the narrative.

In literature, we are generally dealing with a single mind that expresses itself as a string of different characters in various situations.  However good the author may be, he/she is still just one person and it is generally assumed that we should be working through the story to a single conclusion, not a mass of contradictory, unsatisfying endings.  By default, well conceived literature will tend to be much simpler and clearer than what we encounter in history.  It is also true that, relieved from the hard necessity of adhering to evidence, fiction authors write in literature what their readers want to see–and that is often simply a stirring story that builds to an emotional climax before winding down into closure.  While that may be oversimplifying it a bit, that is, after all, the standard and most effective form of storytelling that leaves the reader with the most satisfaction.

If we can understand the two and their distinctions, we can hopefully use their strengths without fall prey to their weaknesses.

First, the problems.  Historians who have a heavily literary background tend to try to oversimplify their histories.  There seems to be a tacit assumption that there must always a single point of climax–the turning point–and that this climax must be preceded by a steady development of events.  They take the vast cacophony of evidence and shoehorn it into the standard literary model.  Generally, the only way that can be accomplished is by distorting the truth or grossly oversimplifying things.  For instance, they might ignore significant aspects of the topic in order to pare everything down to fit the “standard” or inject/dampen emotion to keep the ascent to the climax where it “should be.”

Authors of fiction who want to make their stories more “real” often misunderstand the what it is about history that gives it a feeling of depth and power.  Instead of a sense of the real complexity of millions of minds and agenda competing together set against a rich tapestry of technology and natural history, they will sometimes simply dump useless detail into the periphery, while clinging to a single, simple climax that is the source of more than half their problem.

How do we grow stronger as writers from this then?

Historians must never lose touch with the balance between complexity and simplicity.  Both are absolutely necessary for good history.  We cannot info dump a mass of random facts onto our readers–that would completely defeat the purpose of writing history at all.  At the same we must realize that we will reach a point of irreducible complexity.  If we cross beyond that point, we are doing our readers a disservice by spreading what amounts to falsehoods.

As writers of fiction, if we are writing anything that we want to feel “historical” we must keep the same balance in mind, though really we ourselves–not the evidence–define what becomes “irreducible complexity.”  If our stories are too clean, they won’t feel “real”.  If they are too messy, we won’t satisfy anyone.  Our goal should be to get the feel of the latter without losing the effectiveness of the former.

There are two ways to get a good sense of this.  One of course is to read good fiction (try Tolkien and Martin, for instance) but another is to read good history.  And I mean real history–the kind with footnotes!  Get a sense of how real life has worked over time, and get a feel for those who express it well.  Over time you’ll see that flavor coming up in your own writing.

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Other Posts in the History and Fiction Series

  1. Talking Turning Points
  2. Stereotypical Character Types
  3. Eras, Ages, and Everything Else….
  4. The Role of the Individual–Me Myself, and I