The Historical Writer’s Oath

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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.

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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.

24 Replies to “The Historical Writer’s Oath”

  1. “I will not engage innocent historical figures in any of these fictionalized offenses out of malice or for “shock value”: . . . a change in sexual preferences/attractions (making someone bisexual/homosexual/straight who wasn’t) . . .”

    I was wondering what your take, from a Christian viewpoint, on homosexuality is (e.i. if you think it’s a conscious personal choice, or people are born that way). Either way, do you believe that some historical figures were homosexual, and if so, do you think there’s enough evidence to prove any speculations?

    1. My take on homosexuality: it depends on the individual — I’ve known some people born with it, often who don’t want to be that way and struggle with it, and others who seemed to drift toward it as a conscious lifestyle choice. There’s no “one size fits all” morality, IMO.

      I believe homosexuality has lasted throughout history, so yes, there’s been homosexuals in every generation and culture across the world, for as long as time has existed.

      In some instances, it’s widely documented and/or easily proven (such as Roman Emperors who had male lovers, or male AND female lovers, etc — but even there, since gay sex was a method of showing dominance, it’s questionable as to whether they were ‘born that way’ or chose to be that way based on the culture); in others, there’s enough rumors to substantiate it (does anyone question Oscar Wilde? No, then don’t write him as straight!).

      I think it’s safer to go off more reasonable evidence (were there rumors at the time? was he accused in a court of law of sodomy? are her letters more intimate and/or romantic toward another woman than others from the period?) as opposed to using minor things such as “Well, he/she wasn’t married!” to build a case based on speculation, because that fails to take into account any number of reasons why people were withdrawn from the opposite sex.

      1. You mention that a society’s culture (you mentioned the Romans) can contribute documentation of homosexual activity, and because of this it’s hard to tell if it was inherent or by choice. Do you think the same principle could be applied to societies where women and men were mainly only in the company of their own sex; for example, during wartime, if women found comfort in each other while their husbands were at war, and vice versa for men in the military? And correspondence between historical people of the same sex who were merely close friends every misinterpreted by historians who think there was something more going on?

        As far as being born homosexual, do you think it would be something biological, or merely a mental predisposition? And if people are homosexual, does the same concept apply to people who identify as asexual, bisexual, transsexual, pansexual, etc.?

        This is obviously a controversial topic in Christianity, with people voicing argument both for and against it; do you think Scripture condemns homosexuality, or does it really not specify? There are some verses that discuss it, such as Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, and Romans 1:26-27); are these still relevant, or do they reflect the time period they were written in and get taken out of context?

        Sorry to ask so many questions; it’s a topic that has no easy answer, and varies greatly on whom you ask and what evidence is used. I’m still trying to figure out how I view it, and it can be hard to find facts and opinions that aren’t heavily swayed one way or the other; are there any books you think can give some unbiased insight on the matter?

        1. This will be long, but you asked a complex question. 😛

          Ancient Rome used to equate “force” and “power” and “masculinity” with sodomizing younger men, so a lot of Romans participated in it, despite perhaps not identifying as homosexual or bisexual – I’m not sure they saw sexual identity as anything but fluid, or even as worthy of paying much attention to; it was a cultural behavior some engaged in, and others didn’t. Sex was for a variety of reasons, including dominance, pleasure, reproduction, etc. Sex was used in pagan rituals, and in cultures predating the Romans, often before human sacrifice. It’s only more modern cultures that want to put labels on it, and designate what is and what isn’t considered socially appropriate, although ancient cultures did often dictate morality.

          So, in the case of ancient personalities, it can be difficult to tell if this was a predilection or preference – the further in history you get away from sexual dominance, the easier it is to see – because the genuine homosexuals were willing to risk social alienation or death (in an increasingly hostile toward homosexual society) in order to fulfill those sexual desires. (Of course, countless closet homosexuals never acted on it, in those same situations, for fear of persecution.)

          Regarding situations where there’s no other sexual outlet – I don’t know. I think I’d enjoy the company of other women in a situation without men, but I don’t think I’d ever have sex with one; the situation doesn’t necessarily “cause” homosexual tendencies, I suspect they need to be there (or at least, the person must be “open to it” in the first place) in order for it to manifest.

          Since humans err, there will be mistakes, yes. It’s better to assume nothing until proven otherwise.

          I think sexuality is both unimportant and very important; it’s an enormous part of a person’s identity and development, but how much emphasis is placed on it is often due to the culture – we live in a time where everyone is pressed to have a sexual identity, as if that should define them, when there are many more components to a full personality than simply sexual attraction.

          Is there a difference between biological or mental predisposition?

          I believe brain chemistry has something to do with it, yes.

          As regards scripture, I don’t know.

          The Old Testament reflects the views of the people who wrote it, who were themselves products of ancient (pagan) civilization. It seems to me that God tried to speak to them, over generations, time and again, but their own prejudices, predispositions, and biases interfered, often overruling and attributing things TO God that may or may not be how God is. But He still bleeds through, once in awhile and you find Him fully present, in Christ. Jesus said, “If you have seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” Since Jesus was nothing like the Jews expected (they anticipated a warrior god, a rigid moralizer like them, who would come and slaughter their enemies) … we can assume their outdated presuppositions about God in the Old Testament were skewed.

          Here’s what I think: God has worked within our social system from the start, often permitting humans their delusions in an attempt to ever move them forward, in subtle (but at the time, dramatic) ways. We forget the ideas introduced in the Bible were radical at the time – hey, instead of human sacrifices, how about a goat? Hey, instead of treating your slave like dung, how about being kind to them? Hey, instead of leaving women to fend for themselves, how about you take care of widows and orphans? And… instead of going through one wife after another, how about you stick with one, and be faithful to her, until her dying breath?

          What did Jesus get most angry about? Not sin. The religious people who used “rules” to justify condemning, persecuting, ignoring, abandoning, and mistreating other people. He never said a word about sex. Paul did, but Paul isn’t Christ, and shouldn’t be seen as equal to Christ. We’re not the “Paulians,” we’re the Christians. Paul is great. I love Paul. A more blunt, obnoxious, brilliant man never lived. But Paul also came out of strict Jewish culture, and was a product of his own time, much as I’m a product of mine. We can’t forget that.

          I think Jesus wants us to love one another, be kind to one another, not persecute one another, to champion one another. He seemed to push for fidelity within social constraints, as when he spoke to the Woman at the Well – so if sexuality is meaningless to Him (I have no way of knowing), it may be that He’d prefer homosexual couples to be sexually faithful to one person, the same as a straight couple.

          Is homosexuality a sin? I don’t know.

          Which side should Christians stand on? I tend to think – the side of marginalized, abused people.

          As for books on the topic, I’ve read a few but I don’t know any without a bias either, so I recommend reading both sides and forming your own conclusion. You also need to take my opinion with a grain of salt, because I’m not “of” any particular brand of religious ideology other than belief in Christ. (I’m not Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc., and my own views about sex, religion, etc., have been continually shifting over the last several years – at the moment, I’m standing in a field of ripped-up former belief systems, without any certainty of what I believe anymore, beyond Christ, so I’m about as far from a fundamentalist perspective as you’re going to find.)

  2. This is truly excellent.

    (If you’ve not yet watched “Reign” I implore you not to. The character assassination the writers did on Queen Elizabeth I is unforgivable. Not that they did a great job with anyone else, mind, but…well. Queen Elizabeth’s character is unrecognizable.)

    1. What they did to Elizabeth was indeed irksome… but it would be even more so if the show wasn’t so absurdly inaccurate all over the place. I’ll hand it to them in one area: they got Catherine de Medeci’s personality right, even if they are traipsing around a magic-laden land in modern prom dresses. I hate-watch it just to enjoy Catherine’s snark. 😉

      1. Megan Follows is (as ever) brilliant. She is the only reason I still watch the show. (The “prom” dresses and modern music throws me for a loop every. single. time.) *chuckles*

        1. Ditto. I think my favorite of her lines was from the first season: “Come back here, I’m not done abusing you yet!” (I watch compilations of her lines on YouTube and laugh.)

          I think ALL historically inaccurate shows are problematic, but the most insidious ones are the most convincing and have a sense of true history behind them — so I’m less concerned that “Reign,” with its ghosts, prom gowns, high heels, and rock music, will do extensive damage than I am angry about the character assassinations in “TURN.” The former is so inaccurate, only the most ignorant of history would believe its lies; the latter promotes itself as an authentic depiction of the period, with, for the most part, accurate costumes, names, etc (and it airs on a “credible” network).

          “The Tudors” had the latter problem as well; people believed its lies, because there was just enough truth involved to make the falsehoods convincing. I find that more damaging than blatant lies.

  3. Well done, my dear!

    There’s a reason why I’m reading so much more magical realism than historic fiction now. I’m just tired of the misrepresentation of historical figures and any historic period in general. It’s disappointing.

    I don’t think for my work that I’ll actually be using historic figures, although I could since Wyatt Earp was in the town I’m considering. Or I may just create my own town and then I don’t have to worry about incorporating real people.

    However, in terms of research and historicity of the era, I will take your historical writer’s oath. I hate research, but I need to be respectful of Colorado’s history and be as accurate as I possibly can with my work. 🙂

    1. I have to wonder if it is tied in some way to a lack of honor in our modern culture. If you think about it, treating historical figures with respect as individuals requires honor on the part of the writer — the realization that these are not fictional characters, which you are free to manipulate as you choose. Since our culture no longer teaches respect for self or anyone else, is it surprising the result is slanderous historical fiction / film?

      I mean, let’s take “The Duchess” for example — Georgiana’s husband was slimy enough in history, there was no need to hammer it home for a modern audience by transforming him into a rapist at the same time. So now there are hundreds of people who think he did rape his wife to exert control over her, when there is no evidence of that whatsoever.

      Perhaps the secondary flaw is that modern writers underestimate an audience. They are used to “over-showing” to hammer home a point, instead of using subtleties and expecting the audience to read between the lines. It’s almost as if, if they don’t INCREASE the behavior, they think it won’t disturb an audience. Thus, you wind up with womanizing depictions of Henry VIII which unfairly malign his reputation (really? yes!), or a succession of novels (several now) where his father is a rapist (he wasn’t!!), or any number of other actions that now malign historical reputations.

      Yeah. There’s my rant for today.

      Why do you hate research?

      To me, finding out more about former eras, worldviews, and individuals is interesting! It brings them alive for me.

  4. So funny that I’m reading this post today, as yesterday I started reading “A Flaw in the Blood” by Stephanie Barron, and I’m considering quitting reading it because yeah… even if Queen Victoria and those around her weren’t exactly saintly, I can’t imagine they were like this.

    Considering posting this to my website cuz I do write fiction set in the past, but so far I’ve stuck to totally fictional, but I almost tossed a real Nebraska sheriff into “The Man on the Buckskin Horse.”

    1. Nothing beats the book I read about (note: did not read) where Henry VIII’s fourth and fifth wives engaged in a lesbian tryst. That was the point on Goodreads where I lost all faith in humanity altogether. 😛

        1. I don’t know.

          I can’t help but think that the general lack of “class” in our society has led to people assuming they can do as they please with historical figures?

          1. Yeah. I’m always weirded out by that — or by “shipping” real people together? (Like, that actor should totally dump the girl he’s with and be with his costar from this movie! :P)

  5. Thank you for coming up with this idea! Excellent post. I get so irritated when authors manipulate history to suit their fiction. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read that have changed facts, personalities, descriptions, settings- all to benefit themselves. Best selling, professional authors are the worst offenders. I always find that history is a far more compelling narrative than falsehood.

    1. I always wonder, when history provides such a rich tapestry of possibilities based on truth, why invent something? Or why not just write straight up fiction?

  6. That’s an excellent idea. I wish more authors in the genre would do the same.

    I myself have never yet included any real-life historical figures in my historical fiction; but if I do I’ll certainly try to follow your example. (Come to think of it, there’s a possibility Anne Frank may make a cameo appearance at some point in my current novel, so . . . I may have reason to use this sooner than I thought.)

        1. Historically accurate fiction is indeed nearly nonexistent. In fairness, older historical novels are also often inaccurate — yet, those authors had more of an excuse to make stuff up than modern novelists do, now that research volumes, additional biographies, and online historical resources lie at our fingertips.

          1. Yes. I was thinking about that myself—how, instead of a “lost art,” it might be more accurately described as an art which never really got off the ground in the first place.

            I think part of the problem today is that so much of what claims to be “historical fiction” is actually poorly written Christian fiction romance, which isn’t even trying to be historically accurate. (I hate Christian fiction romance, but that’s another rant for another day . . .)

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