Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Truth in fiction: why do we care?

A great friend, Sophie Perinot, did an excellent blog post yesterday, Invention is the Midwife of Good Historical FictionTruth in fiction is a huge concern for me. I don't believe that the historical fiction author has a license to make it all up. Otherwise, why write or call it a historical, if you ignore the sources? But, there are times where even a good detective of history, as hist fic writers are often forced to be, must use their imagination. Check out Sophie's article too, as she shares the "experts" reasoning on the topic.

I'm struggling with truth in fiction, while wrapping up scenes between my protagonist and villain in Sultana's Legacy. My antagonist is my heroine Fatima's elder brother, Sultan Muhammad III. If some of the therapists I know could get him on their couch, he'd be diagnosed as a sociopath, seriously in need of some CBT. The historical record has some information on his murderous behavior. One day, he got pissed off at his jailer for having pity on some political prisoners (he dared throw them some dry bread, rather than let them starve). Muhammad had the jailer's head cut off and let the blood rain down on the prisoners to give them "something to drink" - that's direct from all the sources. It's the best example of his cruelty I could find, so I had to include that scene . The other references to how he tortured and killed his father's servants, or roamed the palace at odd hours screaming like a madman, are just general examples of his instability.

Sounds like the perfect sort of villain to write about, doesn't he? While I have no doubt that Muhammad was a complete nut job, I've had to guess at how others would have reacted to his behavior, in particular Fatima. By all accounts, she was her father's image, devoted to her studies and as learned as he was. How did she feel when Muhammad poisoned their father? I'll never know. 

The Spanish and even Arabic chroniclers within the Alhambra didn't write anything about how the murder of Muhammad II affected his other children. Some of the later events from Fatima's history have allowed me to form an educated guess about her feelings. I've used it as the basis for the majority of the conflict that occurs 2/3 into Sultana's Legacy. My dilemma: do I address the fact in my author's note that I truly don't know the extent of her vengeance? Why should I care?

The reason I care is because of what can be called the "Braveheart phenomena" - if you've seen the film, you know what I mean so I won't go into it here. If you haven't seen it, watch the film, then go off and read about Isabella of France, the wife of King Edward II. I'm sure you'll say because it's a movie, it's different from historical fiction. Historical events on TV or in books still leave the audience with the same conclusion: the events, as presented, must have happened. I remember seeing Braveheart with my mother and, since she knows her daughter is some history freak, she asked what I thought. My response? "Why'd he (Mel Gibson) have to do the stupid French princess thing?" She asked what I meant and was surprised that history and Mel disagreed.

In my case, does it matter that what I've written isn't 100% verifiable? When the sources don't give me any detail, I've settled for what's reasonably plausible, what could have happened. I've determined that Fatima didn't get the warm fuzzies when her elder brother killed their father, because she helped secure the throne for a younger brother. Yes, this was one screwed up family - they would all be on therapists' couches if they were alive today!

Beyond extrapolating later details, I also considered basic human nature. I don't know anyone who can take on a villain without taking some risks and doing slightly questionable things. I also think it's impossible to come out of the battle unscathed. I've enjoyed writing this sequel because I got to turn my genteel, loving heroine into a person almost as dangerous as her real-life brother. It's all reasonably possible that it happened, but part of me wishes I knew the real truth. Where's a time machine when you need one? Scholars are still investigating the Moorish period in Spain and perhaps one day, they'll get the real story.

Until now, it's never bothered me that I was putting words in the mouths of my historical figures. I understand a little better why some of my friends who write in the same genre create characters from scratch. I keep in mind that as a writer, it's my job to be creative and sustain conflict. But, what do you do when the sources are silent as to whether there was a conflict to begin with?  


Sophie Perinot said...

This stuff is tricky. Even when chroniclers and sources exist we cannot know their prejudices or their agendas. Absolute objective truth – not easy to find. Not currently and not in history.

Lisa Yarde said...

Sophie, you know what my biggest fear is? Just before I die, some historian will dissect my Sultana books and tell me why I was wrong about Fatima's relationships, because he found the diary in which she wrote about her whole life! Then, I wake up from that nightmare and remember I write historical fiction, I'm not a historian.

Michelle Gregory said...

we could also call it the "Robin Hood" phenomenon. i guess writers and Hollywood like using Richard and John for their own purposes.

Lisa Yarde said...

Michelle, please don't mention Robin Hood, cause then I have to think about Ridley Scott.

He's another director that takes "dramatic license" with history for entertainment purposes. I saw his version of Robin Hood. When I walked out of the movie PISSED, I remembered Scott got me before, with Kingdom of Heaven. The part of me that loves history wants to go, "No, hands off the medieval period, you're just mucking things up!"

Johanna Garth said...

Lisa, that's such a tricky line to walk. I think just the fact that you've spent so much time thinking about it means that you will eventually come to an approach that feels you. And in the end, you are your most important critic.

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