Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Ethics of Historical Fiction

Is it ethical to write stories using historical personages as viewpoint characters? This is a question that troubles me as a writer (and reader) of historical fiction. No matter how meticulously researched, historical fiction is just that—fiction, a construct of the author’s imagination. Given gaps in the historical record, the novelist fabricates a character’s thoughts, motivations, even aspects of his personality. This poses no problem when the author creates a character from nothing. But what if the author writes about a person who actually lived? Is it “right” to assign words and thoughts and feelings to a person, when there is often no way of knowing if the person actually thought or felt or would ever consider saying those things?

The label “historical novel” alerts the reader that a certain degree of authorial inventiveness colors the portrayal of the book’s characters. But does this absolve the novelist of the “sin” of accidental or intentional misrepresentation? Can an imaginative work, even if it casts the character in a positive light, be a disservice to the memory and repute of the person portrayed, in that it might not be true? Fictional portrayals do affect how readers think of history and remember its players. I could name plenty of historical figures I knew first through novels; only grudgingly did I change my image of them once I’d read more “objective” sources [and let’s not even touch the question of how factual sources are potentially (necessarily?) biased constructs themselves!]. And just think of the number of readers who accepted The DaVinci Code’s outrageous claims as true, even though the book was labeled a novel.

I suppose it comes down to this: three or four centuries from now, would I want a novelist, who could only know the most cursory things about me, portraying what I supposedly thought and felt and said, especially since I’d have no way of correcting mistakes or defending myself against inaccuracies? Is it right for me, then, to do this to someone else?

Unnecessary scruples, perhaps. But nevertheless a compelling reason to be as meticulous in my research and as responsible in my storytelling as possible.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this issue.


Catherine Delors said...

Very good question, Julianne. Every historical novelist may be at some point guilty of the sin you mention here.

In my first novel, the POV character is fictional, so this dilemna was not an issue.

In my second novel, though, I have two POV characters, one, a policeman, fictional, the other one, a "terrorist," historical.

So, yes, I had to put myself into the shoes of that real person. How did I do it? By reading about the letters he or like-minded people wrote at the time, the opinions that man expressed. Also by reading essays on the psychology of modern terrorists.

Did I betray him? Perhaps, but I honestly tried to imagine what must have prompted his actions. One thing I left open at the end: whether or not he felt sincere remorse for his actions. I did not feel that I could answer that, 200 years after the facts.

Julianne Douglas said...


It sounds like you did the responsible thing in the way you handled your terrorist. I especially like how you kept the question of his remorse open at the end. It seems you have hit upon a just solution. By leaving questions involving the historical person's moral decisions unresolved or ambiguous in the end, the author avoids judging him falsely and leading the reader to do likewise.

Your second book sounds fascinating. I think people hardly ever consider that there might have been terrorists in earlier ages. I'm looking forward to hearing more about your novel.

Michelle Moran said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michelle Moran said...

Ooops... I got my paragraphs mixed up! That's what I get for cutting and pasting from notepad, I guess. What I meant to say was...

It's troubling to me as well to imagine words being put into my mouth hundreds of years later (in the case of my writing, several thousand), but if the writer has done his/her homework and truly tried their best to make the work as authentic as possible, I'm not personally bothered by fiction which includes historical characters. I do find it odd when the characters are from our own century (or previous century), and I tend to skip those books.

I've also come across the topic of whether it's more historically accurate to use first person or third in writing an historical novel. For me, I'm not sure I see a whole lot of difference between writing an historical novel from first person POV or third. In both instances the dialogue is fictional, and since good dialogue reveals the emotions of the characters, as well as their inner thoughts, both first and third person must include fabrications. I believe these sorts of fabrications are inescapable in writing historical fiction, and the best an author can do is stay as true to the known personality as possible.

Although I AM quite bothered by first person present tense! I toyed with writing my current novel this way, then eventually settled on one last novel in first. After making that decision, I did some research online and discovered entire blogs dedicated to the hatred of present tense in novels!

Deanna said...

I think respect is key, and if one's characters (viewpoint or otherwise) are historical personages, it's a matter of being as "authentic" as one can be. Many times I've read a book about a historical person I know things about and I've thought, "He would NOT say that! he would NOT do that!" It's tricky. I've got a project going now where my viewpoint character was a real person, but we know nothing about her except her name and profession. So I can have fun with that. The other chief protagonist was a real person but is so very well documented that I feel like I can get inside his head fairly well. The author's note is the place to be explicit about the lines between fact and fiction.
ps. SO TRUE about Dan Brown. That book makes me cuckoo, because so many people did come away thinking it's true. Blame the ambiguous author's note for that.

Anonymous said...

I hear you, Michelle. First person present tense really irks me, too. Even Philippa Gregory couldn't carry it off for me, and I'd much rather read an historical in first or third.


Julianne Douglas said...


I have a more difficult time with the historical person being the viewpoint character because, for me, inhabiting another person, seeing and commenting through his eyes, is such an intimate thing, I feel it would be practically impossible to do so accurately. Whereas, if the viewpoint character is a fictional character observing or interacting with a historical figure, then any misinterpretations of the historical character can be attributed to the fictional character's faulty perception rather than the author's. The reader is less apt to accept the portrayal of the historical character from a fictional character's viewpoint as "true" than they would accept the truth of the historical character supposedly speaking through his own voice. Does that make any sense?

Perhaps I would change my mind if I felt I "knew" a real person intimately enough to approximate his true voice. At least at this point in my career, I'm more comfortable with the distance a fictional main character provides.

[I know this entire discussion in somewhat abstruse, but as a literature professor, I think it's interesting and important to examine the underpinnings of what we do as writers!]

I, too, hate first person present tense, especially in historical fiction. I know it's meant to make the narrative seem more immediate, but I think it draws attention to itself and winds up distancing the reader.

Thanks for hanging with me for this philosophical digression!

Michelle Moran said...

I think you're right about first person being more intimate. And certainly if the narrator is fictional, all viewpoints and characterizations can be attributed to him/her!

I suppose the reader of an historical fiction in which the main character has actually lived simply has to keep in mind that it's fiction, first and foremost. Although the historian has an obligation (imo) to stick to the main events as they're known, and to try and portray real people as they truly might have been (given what's known about them), there can be little doubt that most of these works are more fiction than nonfiction.

Julianne Douglas said...


It all comes down to an implicit contract between reader and author: the reader agrees to acknowledge and accept the fictional aspects of the narrative, while the author, for her part, agrees to research thoroughly and use her imagination responsibly. Problems occur, I suppose, when either party fails to uphold her end of things.

Julianne Douglas said...


Thank you so much for joining in the discussion. I checked out your blog and am THRILLED to find an art historian reading! Is your specialty Van Gogh? I can't wait to spend more time reading through your posts.

My new novel will feature two artists prominently: Il Rosso Fiorentino and Primaticcio. Both were invited to embellish Fontainebleau and founded what is known as the "school of Fontainebleau," a blending of Italian and French styles. What I've read so far about the two artists' competitive collaboration is fascinating.

Are you familiar with this French "school"? Please feel free to jump in and add to or correct my ramblings on art. I am eager to learn all I can.

Deanna said...

Hi Julianne--
Thanks for visiting my blog. For all I know, you're the first! My academic specialty is actually not van Gogh--it's ancient Greek art--but I teach widely like most people and have been a van Gogh fangirl for years. I'm enjoying your blog; I'm trying my hand at a novel right now (about guess who!) and am inspired by the fact you made the crossover from academic writing to fiction successfully. Congratulations!

I know a tiny bit about the Fontainebleau school but not much. I'm excited to see what you do with those painters though!

My blogging name is actually a nom de plume for now -- what can I say, I'm either paranoid or shy -- my real name is Sheramy. Nice to meet you!

Catherine Delors said...

Hi Deanna,
I love art history! Where is your blog? I'd love to visit. Mine is
Talk to you soon.