I have a quick question for you. I’m trying to write a story about a certain point in history, it’s technically a work of fiction, but it’s going to be historical fiction and I want to present the perspectives of both sides. I’m worried that doing so could wind up being offensive and making people angry. What do you think I should do?
Thanks in advance for your help
(Anonymous by request)
So I’m going to assume that the time period in question and/or one side isn’t what we would consider ‘on the ball’ in terms of morality?
Well honestly, that’s kind of one of the dangers of writing historical fiction/fantasy. You’re going to piss off someone’s sensibility no matter what. If you portray your story from an ideological standpoint, and don’t go for historical accuracy, you’re going to bother the history buffs out there who read your book. They will tear it apart. On the other hand, if you’re going to go the other way and go full historical accuracy, dealing with issues and behavior that aren’t exactly welcome in polite society, you’re going to get yourself in trouble there too.
It’s a tough call and frankly, one we’ve seen happen in a few cases. I’m going to forewarn you that I will admit to a certain bias here as I am a history buff and do prefer reading the unfiltered facts about what happened and deciding the ‘truth’ or what’s right, based on my own morality.
Some of the best storytellers out there trust their audience to take the information in its entirety and still be able to draw the correct answer out of it… sadly, this is not always the case.
Gene Siskel, God rest his soul, lambasted the movie ‘Gettysburg’ as pure bloated propaganda. The reason behind that is, simply put, part of the story is told from a southern perspective as though the Southerners were telling it. Today, this wouldn’t be considered politically correct, but it was accurate. There’s a scene where Confederate soldiers are talking to a union officer about what they’re fighting for and they say something to the effect that they’re fighting for their rights.
Gene took issue with scenes like this because the confederate soldiers didn’t bring up slavery, but in honesty, this is an accurate portrayal. The confederates believed that they were losing influence in our government and that states rights were taking a back seat to the Federal Government and this became glaringly obvious when the feds wanted to abolish slavery, despite opposition in the south. The south saw this as validation of what they had feared and seceded. So it is accurate that a southern soldier would say that they’re fighting for their rights… and the “right” that was being taken away was the right to own slaves.
Now, if that was the only perspective we got, I’d agree with Siskel. However, we also got a Union perspective where slavery was absolutely at the forefront of why they were fighting. This balances things out and really gives the movie a more neutral stance.
Another example is the band Sabaton. They sing songs about allied brigades during WW1, WW2, and even ancient history. Their song about the 82nd Airborne is amazing, as is the song about the Lost Battalion. However, they also do songs about the German Ghost Division and the Bismarck. At times, they have been accused of glorifying Nazism, but they say that they’re basically just telling a story about who these people were and what they did. Honestly, looking through their lyrics, they do seem mostly neutral when it comes to their songs.
Now you can argue that being neutral is being complacent or to some, even complicit, but I’d say that this is not really fair. If people don’t write stories about these people, present them as they were, and talk about the things they did, then people don’t learn about past mistakes and run the risk of repeating them. These people existed and the things that they did happened. There is nothing we can do about it except tell their stories and put them in the limelight so that what happened can never be forgotten.
History doesn’t care about sensibilities, it is not pretty, and it will not censor itself.
Now, let’s be clear, you’re not writing a textbook. You’re writing historical fiction and that’s where you could get yourself into trouble. IMHO there is absolutely nothing wrong with showing these people as they were, what they believed, what they thought, and how they behaved. Some of the best stories trusted the audience to look at both sides and take the right message away without hammering it into them. It is a skill in storytelling that is slowly dying out.
If you decide to go this route and present both sides equally and allow them to tell their own stories… you better be damn careful that you do everything in your power to research both sides accurately. History people will pick your story apart with a fine-toothed comb and if they find out that what you wrote isn’t accurate, you’ll have twice as many people angry at you. I know it’s historical fiction, but you’re going to have some real life people and events in your story and if you’re taking a neutral stance, you need to present both sides accurately and equally. It’s as simple as that, if you make mistakes, it will come off as propaganda or perhaps promoting the wrong side.
Anyway, I wish you nothing but luck in your endeavor. I’m curious to see which path you decide to take and would love for you to follow up with me later on.
Until then, let’s open the floor. Readers, how do you think this person should handle reporting on the less glamorous aspects of history in their book?
Let them know!
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I’ll use those comments to select my next blog post.
I have been writing for several years, have 4 published works, experience with publishing and independent work, so I can hopefully be of assistance.
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Catch you on the flip side!