History and Fiction: The Role of the Individual–Me, Myself, and I

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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A sense of the individual in fiction and history–the ruins of a freed slave settlement on the Appalachian Trail. Who built this? What was his/her life like? (photo by the author).

In most fiction, individuals are, of course, very important.  In just about any good book, their triumphs lift us up; their failures bring us down.  We weep with them, rejoice with them, fight for them, struggle with them, and so much more.  Unfortunately, with one notable exception,* history rarely, if ever, works that way.

An individual is the natural vehicle through which we as readers experience almost all stories.  He/she serves as an anchor, a point of particular connection that personalizes the abstract.  He/she gives the reader something with which to identify and, with that identification, a mere collection of facts can become a living, breathing adventure.

The individual is also important in history.  After all, it is sometimes easy to forget that history itself is shaped by very real, very human particular people.  We may be looking at the story of nations over the course of thousands of years, but we are still, in fact, examining the actions of a collection of independent, thinking, individuals.  The World Wars, for instance, were fought by massive armies, that, all told, encompassed hundreds of millions of people and entire self-identified nations.  Still, we cannot forget that it was specific decisions by diplomats and politicians that led to those wars.  Commanding generals gave concrete orders and the men in the ranks each made a decision to follow or ignore them.

The problem arises when there is an overemphasis on the individual.  Fiction tends to fall into this trap much more so than history for the simple reason that the individual is so much more essential there.  We want to see as much of the individual as we can, because the more opportunity we have for investment, the stronger our feelings for the story become.  We want to triumph with him/her, single handed, over all adversity.  Real life is too complex to allow for that kind of simplicity, and losing sight of that is one way to make a story feel artificial.  Everyone–even presidents, kings, and queens–rely on others.  An individual may be a very important design in the tapestry of history, but we should never lose sight of the fact that they exist and gain significance because of their place in the tapestry; the tapestry doesn’t exist to justify their design.

The ruins of Brown Mountain Creek

What tales were told by this fire side, many years ago? (photo by the author)

Of course, the individual is useful to historians as well, but history is fact driven and in its ideal form it prizes accuracy.  Therefore, “real” history tends to subvert the individual rather than idolize him/her.  When this is carried to extremes, the result is what is not so affectionately known as “and then” history.  That sort of history has come to be loathed by many students who were unfortunate enough to have it inflicted on them at either the high school or college level.  These historians have much to learn about expressing themselves from writers of fiction.  Through the intelligent use of individual personalities–based on strong research and mature understanding–good historians can bring the past to life in real, almost tangle ways.  (And teachers?  Perhaps they can convince a few more students why they shouldn’t hate history!)

Once again, it seems to be an issue of balance, and J. R. R. Tolkien provides us with an excellent example of finding it.  In both The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien gives his readers clear, strong, accessible personalities to understand and attach themselves to.  At the same time, those characters are always and obviously swept along in the much greater whole.  It is possible to feel both a sense of fate and the vicarious exercise free individual will all at once.  That helps give Tolkien a depth of realism that most authors can only approximate.

Keeping the individual close readers, making him/her as real and as vibrant as we can, allows us to offer a window into our worlds.  But we must never forget to keep that window in its proper context if we want maintain that feeling of realism that only history can give.

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*That exception being Christ Himself.  In one instant, a single person changed the course of the world through an act of supreme sacrifice.

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
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About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on August 24, 2012, in Brian Melton, History, J.R.R. Tolkien, Middle Earth, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I am a history teacher and I see it as my primary goal to help high school students realize history is a fun topic to study. Once they dig into the human story and find they have more in common with the past than they thought, it becomes their favorite class! 🙂

    • I’ve been teaching history for ten years, and I’ve also found that it the story in history that makes all the difference. Anyone can memorize facts–a good story teller makes them come alive!

  1. Pingback: History and Fiction: Talking Turning Points | Lantern Hollow Press

  2. Pingback: History and Fiction: Eras, Ages, Everything Else…. | Lantern Hollow Press

  3. Pingback: History and Fiction: Stereotypical Character Types | Lantern Hollow Press

  4. Pingback: History and Fiction: Life is Messy | Lantern Hollow Press

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