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History is Written By People: Conclusions on Building Fictional History

I read quite a bit of history, both real and fictional. In the last couple months, the historically oriented books that I’ve read and enjoyed have included (in no particular order) Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, the edited volume Wastelands 2: More Stories of the Apocalypse, Kim E. Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States, Bruce Levine’s The Fall of the House of Dixie, N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and the fictionalized history text by George RR Martin, Elio M. Garcia Jr. and Linda Antonsson, The World of Ice & Fire. With all of this stuff floating around my head, and especially after talking about Jemisin and Martin’s work in my book group this weekend, I’ve been reminded of a conclusion that’s good to restate from time to time. That conclusion is this:

History is complicated.

A lot of what I mean by that is encompassed in the expression “history is written by the victors,” that those who come out on top in any conflict usually get the first and/or last say in how that conflict’s framed in official history books. That’s why Christopher Columbus’s arrival in North America is still celebrated in much of the United States despite protests that the holiday commemorates genocide, and it’s why children in Vietnam learn that the United States sent colonialist forces to their country in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But there’s more to the matter than that.

Good historians, like all social scientists, try to understand and present the past as completely and accurately as possible. But when we talk about history, we mean more than just the most accurate account of events; history’s a distillation of the stories a culture tells itself about the world. By its very nature as the collected experiences of individuals, set down by individuals, real history is never completely uniform, and it’s never totally complete.

First off, no official history ever goes completely unchallenged. One hundred and fifty years later, people still occasionally refer to the 19th-century conflict between the US and the Confederacy as “the War of Northern Aggression.” More than 45 years after network TV broadcast Neil Armstrong saying “one small step for man,” people still dispute whether there was ever a moon landing. Even the most authoritarian leaders usually can’t suppress opposing views completely – and even the most information-driven societies can’t be absolutely sure of the truth of everything in their archives. Not to mention the fact that the archives never hold everything.

Every historian’s work is based on analysis of data. The two “real” histories on my list from the first paragraph, Nielsen’s and Levine’s, rely heavily on first-person accounts, journals and letters from the time periods they’re interested in. But if a place or a people is destroyed suddenly (as happens sometimes in history, and is particularly prone to happen in genre fiction, where a god or an asteroid might wipe out a whole continent with no warning), there may not be much left in the way of records to consult. In Charles C. Mann’s 1491, distilling the latest theories about pre-contact American societies, the author makes the point that there’s a great deal that will never be known for sure about these peoples just because their destruction by the Europeans (through intentional and unintentional means) was so complete.

Finally, there’s the fact that those who set down the history are human beings, and as I tell my students in Sociological Research Methods, human beings can never be truly objective. Even a historian who had access to all the possible data on their subject, from all the sides of a conflict, would have to pick and choose what to include, and those choices would inevitably be guided by bias. Social researchers can try to be aware of their biases, and to work around them, but they can never escape them completely.

Having said all that about how I believe real history works, it probably comes as no surprise that I like my fictionalized history to follow these same rules.

George RR Martin is a master of this. Whether you believe A World of Ice and Fire is a worthwhile addition to the universe or a concession to fans chomping at the bit for the next book, you’d be hard-pressed to deny that it’s a marvelously complex and human history that’s right in line with the way Martin is telling his story in the novels. Rather than an uncontested “behind-the-scenes” account of the events Martin’s developed for the history of his world, AWoIaF presents a contradictory account by a few well-intentioned maesters, who are drawing on incomplete data and writing in full knowledge that their work will be reviewed by the current rulers, and so they’d better stay clear of politically incendiary rhetoric (the title “Kingslayer,”  for example, appears nowhere in these pages). The book’s gotten some criticism from fans for not being “the official history of Westeros”; I’d argue that it couldn’t be more official, just as it is.

Another series that does this well is Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, of which The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first one. When we enter the setting, we’re given the official version of its history – once there were three gods, but then one was killed, another enslaved. These are, respectively, the traitor and the fiend, while the remaining god rules alone in the heavens and the family that helped him win the gods’ war rule on the earth with wisdom and justice. Upon encountering this setup, I’d guess that any reader familiar with the concept of “mainstream” and “alternative” history will be suspicious from the word go, and Jemisin is quick to validate those suspicions. In a guest post she wrote for John Scalzi’s blog when her first book came out, she notes that the germ of the idea for the Inheritance books came when she read 1491, which made her think about the idea of “hidden history.”

The world of my novels has all kinds of hidden history. The era my hero lives in is (very roughly) something of a Renaissance period for his culture, the first years of peace and renewal after a long war that basically leveled the previous civilization. When I sat down to flesh out my worldbuilding, one of the first things I had to work out was exactly what happened in that war. So I did, and now I know the whole story – more or less – but as I wrote it out, I found myself taking first one perspective and then another. I told one faction’s version of what happened and then countered it with the other’s; I came up with names for what each group called themselves as well as what they called their enemies. And when I reference the war in the novel, a person’s answer to the question of “what happened” varies dramatically depending on their species, their regional origins, their age and other factors. No one person, no one group, has the whole story. I like it better that way.

There are certainly good books that connect their story’s main events to precise, unambiguous history. But the more I read, the more I’m convinced that if a writer wants their fictional world to have the ring of authenticity, they’d best take a little time to think about how that world views its past. What evidence has been preserved for contemporary people to use in understanding the past? What stories do the people in power want taught and highlighted? Who would have the incentives to counter those stories?

That’s why I read so much history; because the real world is wondrously multifaceted and complex, and the story changes depending on who’s telling it. I think the best fictional worlds are those that have this feeling to them, like Martin’s, like Jemisin’s. That’s what I try to do when I tell stories in my world.

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5 Comments

  1. I think you make a great point in the effectiveness of a good history to story. Personal histories, sociopolitical events definitely give each their own unique feel and their may be more to discover.

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  2. I am a historian as well (History/Anthropology degree) and enjoy both real and fictional tales. This article could have been written by me. There is so much truth in it – history is dynamic. My main area of expertise is Late Republic/Early Imperial Rome and I’m lucky that this one area of history that much is known. I’m more interested in the unknowns. I always say being a historian that it’s like being a detective. We have to use the evidence we have and form a theory. My thoughts are my opinions and yes, every historian see things differently. That’s the fun of it to me! I absolutely agree that Martin is probably one of the best, if not the best, at approaching history in his world. Rumors of rumors and tales that become ingrained and multiple perspectives. It is truly amazing! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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    • Thanks for commenting! One of my very dear grad school friends is a historian, and we’ve quibbled about that there’s no such thing as objective history — I think it’s very interesting to consider the gap between ‘what happened” and “what we can prove happened.” GRRM’s books do a fantastic job of illustrating the multiple-angles problem (that no one person will ever be able to understand everything that’s happened); I like reading “small histories” and “alternate histories” for the same reason, that there will always be someone who’s left out of the central narrative.

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  3. N.E. Montgomery

     /  May 4, 2015

    Great article! I too am a historian/writer. I am constantly showing my students how different people and groups view events in the past, and how even the *way* I teach, as well as what I cover in the class, is an interpretive choice. I’m applying the way history works, and how we remember it, to my sci-fi series.

    Followed you here from the “On Dothraki and House Elves” article over on Dan Koboldt’s blog — another great one. 😀

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    • That’s something I talk about with my soc students as well; every faculty member has particular things that they will put in or leave out of a course, and “bias” is not a bad word; it’s a fact of human existence 😉 Glad you liked the culture-building post, too!

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