One of my major pet peeves is literary licenses taken with historical figures in serious historical literature. (I do not consider “speculative fiction” serious historical literature or any story where a historical figure is dealing with zombies, vampires, or magic; these stories are obvious fiction and never confused by a casual reader for the truth.) It’s one thing to give a historical figure an odd quirk, and another to engage in character assassination (altering real life heroes into villains, making them into rapists, murders, philanderers, adulterers, changing their worldviews or religious beliefs, etc., and a list of other offenses). My reasons for feeling this way are twofold:
These Were Real People: unlike fictional characters, historical figures were living, breathing individuals, who can no longer defend a maligned reputation. If you would not like someone slandering you in 200 years, you should not slander someone who died before you were born. It is their right to receive dignity after death, as much as in life.
Fiction is Stronger than Fact: writers tend to use the excuse that “it’s just fiction, and people know the difference,” but fiction is more accessible and widely engaged in by the masses than serious scholastic works. Pop culture is more inclined to embrace a fictional impression of a historical figure than the truth. Novelists and filmmakers have more power over public perception of “long dead” figures than academics, and this influence is important. A novel may be the only exposure a casual reader has to that historical figure.
I cannot force other writers to agree with me or respect these beliefs. I cannot stop them from publishing whatever they want, regardless of whose reputation it maligns. But I can promise to my readers that I will never do the same, because I have taken a Historical Writer’s Oath.
This is my own invention, based on my own beliefs and conversations with other annoyed historians and historical writers.
I solemnly swear…
To uphold the dignity of historical figures: by keeping any historical characters in “the spirit of the original” (avoiding anything that radically alters their personality from the known facts, changes their basic personality, slanders or otherwise glorifies them).
To avoid deliberate misrepresentation of historical figures: by not ignoring facts, reinterpreting relationships, or attributing actions to them that are highly unlikely given the body of research we have concerning them (if a woman was pious, she will not be promiscuous).
To avoid excessive vilification and whitewashing of historical figures: to depict their true beliefs with respect, without enhancing unpopular opinions to ignite moral indignation in the modern reader (make them a villain instead of a contemporary of the times), or ignoring offensive beliefs to make them more appealing.
To accuse them of nothing without proof: by leaving ambiguous events surrounding them ambiguous, or adding a disclaimer at the end of the book stating how my version of events is speculation, not fact (if rumors say he had mistresses but there is no evidence, I will leave it unclear within the narrative or explain literary licenses in the author’s notes).
To research the moral, social, political, and religious beliefs of the era sufficiently enough to depict them truthfully.
To do as much research as writing: by consulting multiple sources, reading more than one biography, and only using as sources books that are academically sound. If there is a dispute, I will read more than one book on either side of the argument.
I will not engage innocent historical figures in any of these fictionalized offenses out of malice or for “shock value”: incest, adultery, fornication, rape, genocide, pedophilia, animal abuse, sexual or physical abuse (on them or against others), torture, a change in sexual preferences/attractions (making someone bisexual/homosexual/straight who wasn’t), racism, blackmail, murder, theft, etc.
To consider the historical figure I’m writing about: by thinking about how they would feel about my representation of them (if they read the book, what would their reaction to it be?), or how their family and friends would react to this depiction.
You are free to share or take the oath (if you do, I will read your future books with delight). You may use one of my banners, or create one of your own.