History and Fiction: Life is Messy

For the month of August, I’ve taken a 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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I’ll keep our final point in this discussion (for now) short and to the point:  Life is messy, and therefore so is history.  If we want fiction to feel “real” it must convey some of this confusion and chaos. Its presence is an important, if jagged, edge of realism, and if it is missing from our stories they will “cut” all too cleanly.

Anyone who has ever really tried to write good, original history (as opposed to just absorbing a pre-made product), using good methods, knows the messiness of which I speak.  History is the intertwining of literally millions of stories, personalities, agendas, and even accidents.  It isn’t guaranteed that the different parts of history will compete with each other, but the fact is that all sorts of challenges present themselves to a clear, simple interpretation or theme on a regular basis.  Every source has a different perspective.  Personalities clash.  Accounts subtly (or blatantly) contradict each other.  Half-a-dozen people can watch the same event unfold, and somehow recount that event at least a dozen different ways.  It’s the historian’s job to seek out the evidence, sort through the mess, and present the truthful essentials in a way that people can comprehend without having to spend as much time as the historian did on its study.

A mountain road in twilight. (Photo by the author)

For the writer of fiction, the important dynamic (and the risks) is just the opposite.  With some exceptions, fictional stories come from a single mind, and generally those minds that can see a project as large as a book through to the end are pretty well ordered to begin with.  That lends itself to producing a sort of simplicity that is unnatural in the complex narrative of the past.  Fictional stories can easily seem to flow so well that they lose touch with that “real” feeling the author may be looking to achieve.

Think of a time when things simply “fell into place” in a meaningful way.  Psychologist Carl Jung went so far as to give times like that a name: “synchronicity.”  I know I have had it happen to me, and I am always amazed when it does.  It doesn’t feel “natural,” and I find myself looking to a Higher Power and questioning the purpose behind the events.  That is usually exactly what you don’t want your reader doing, because it brings you, the author, back into focus!  The key here is that these events are the exception in our lives, rather than the rule.  Our readers need to get a sense of the larger “noise” produced by the world where a story takes place, the story feels unnatural.

As a result, while the historian seeks to remove as much “noise” as possible in order for his/her readers to be able to discern the intelligible thread of cause and effect buried underneath all the chaff, in our fiction we should often consider adding a little more of it, as appropriate.  For instance, your characters may find that an essential piece of equipment is missing or is broken.  Replacing it shouldn’t be a major plot point–that would elevate it above the level of “noise.”  Other plans might go awry and require them to think on their feet.  Small events that serve no purpose to the plot should happen now and again.  Done right, this can make the plot feel just a little “messy,” and therefore something that the average human being can identify with all the more easily.

It’s a big world out there…. Your readers need to feel it. (Photo by the author)

And then there’s the Tolkien Approach.  Using that approach, you can spend much of your life literally creating an entire world full of vibrant personalities and history that stretch across literal millennia.  In Tolkien’s case, the “noise” comes quite naturally and he tries to account for the many competing interests and characters across the whole of Middle Earth.  The results in the noise in The Lord of the Rings trilogy is completely natural.  It is also apparent in works like The Silmarillion as well, though there its effectiveness is somewhat lessened.  There Tolkien (J. R. R. or Christopher) is literally acting the part of historian, and the result can be more along the lines of “and then” history to the casual reader.

Of course I’m not suggesting that we use all this as an excuse to justify the sloppy results of an unorganized mind.  That is something very different.  But a touch of “mess” in our worlds and the lives of our characters can introduce an often misunderstood and overlooked level of realism.

I’ll be back in October with posts on how to live your stories.  In the meantime, please enjoy posts from David, Melissa, and Rachel!

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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
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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 31, 2012, in Brian Melton, History, J.R.R. Tolkien, Middle Earth, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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