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Historical accuracy. It evokes robust reactions from both writers and readers alike. Whether we discuss ‘Outlander’ or ‘A Song Of Ice And Fire’, people desire correct depictions of historical events. And that makes sense.
History is important! It’s key to understanding individual values and concerns. It can also make your text seem more convincing.
For example, the historical details in ‘The Name of The Rose’ by Umberto Eco add layers of realism that are effective. It also reminds us that what we experience whilst reading could happen, as it is already sketched in the history books.
It takes skill to transport readers into another world. Yet authors keen on historical fact and detail may have it easier than a storyteller oblivious to reality.
When done right, historical accuracy will cause a literary metamorphose. The story progresses to a well-fleshed record with genuine characters and palpable events. Therefore, authors should appraise their use of historical data.
In film, that often means making simple details such as a warrior’s chain mail look ‘authentic.’ This can be a problem. Often, but not always, what is ‘historically accurate’ can be dour and dull.
It’s true that most small villagers lived average lives with median adventure. Yet a story requires drama, and that may mean an inaccurate portrayal of rural life.
Another argument against historical accuracy is that a lot of authors do not concern themselves with it. Many don’t care! Yet that doesn’t mean they are insulting the art of historical inquiry, or that they are apathetic to evidence and research.
When an author decides to not write with complete accuracy, they are choosing their own imagination. Fiction thrives on that, and it’s shown in Doctor Who episodes (I love “The Girl In The Fireplace”) to The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The result is fiction that is worth valuing for its imagination and rich aesthetics.
However, resorting to the imagination isn’t always positive, as plays such as Richard III reveal the biases of Elizabethan England. Historical research is the ultimate potion against such practices, but only if the inquiry into the past is entirely accurate.
As a history major myself, conducting quality research is issue-prone. This is due to sources being unreliable beasts that hide information, as opposed to revealing it. Even if fiction, such as Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence, relies on entire historical records, that doesn’t mean its foolproof.
Remember: history is a field that’s growing with fresh information about the past.
It is foolish to argue that all historical information is unreliable. I know that Saint Joan of Arc died at the stake, for example. Yet a secondary source saying what was going through her head won’t get the same treatment.
History, like literature, is a multidimensional field that could leave for multiple interpretations. It’s part of the beauty and horror of the humanities.
‘Historical accuracy’ is helpful. Yet authors should strive for authenticity. That may mean accuracy to information about the past. Yet authenticity requires more than historical corrections. It’s accuracy in human nature. If your characters or setting do not resemble humanity, then you have work to do.
Some writers are experts at crafting characters who are defined by their lack of humanity. A marvellous example is H. P. Lovecraft. He created monsters unlike humans. That’s effective, yet Lovecraft wants us to consider human nature. He’s also making a philosophical comment on the intent of life.
I can also appreciate storytellers trying to make a point about humanity losing their dignity. (A central theme in the Blade Runner films).
Human nature is not ‘how many humans can I cram into this story.’ It’s also not an argument for moral goodness. Some of the most ‘human’ stories I’ve read, like The Monk by Matthew Lewis, are laced with depravity. However, they are human.
I’d argue that human nature is the relationship between the writer and the reader. And as your readers are human, it’s fundamental that you give them something to connect with or think about.
Writers won’t relate with readers on ‘historical accuracy’ alone. There must be an attempt to convey something human in your text.
In conclusion, it’s possible to have humanity and historical accuracy in your writing. Is it worrying that writers prioritise historical accuracy over good storytelling? Yes. Can historical accuracy help with effective storytelling? Also, yes.
Overall, historical accuracy is a tool that can enhance your story, but it’s okay to take liberties.
I can’t cover every issue with historical accuracy in fiction. Yet it’s worth considering the ethics of historical depictions, and whether imagination comes at a ‘price’ of accuracy. It may be possible to write an imaginative story and still obey to historical record.
Thoughts? Comment below!