Some of the greatest stories of all time come from history. Real events can at times eclipse fiction for scale, drama and narrative. Other times – for which read most of the time – history is a bit more inconvenient. Sure, WWII is a (debateably) great good vs evil battle with a satisfying (and horrific) ending but it is a real aberration. On the whole, real events are messy and rarely neatly resolved. Essentially, if you were writing it you’d never make those choices. That doesn’t mean some writers don’t write it this way; some do so deliberately precisely because it feels more like authentic history but they do so with the awareness that it is a departure from a traditional narrative. Before I get into the ways in which stories and history diverge I should point out that there are many, many more things that could be added to this list. Here are just a few, off the top of the head, examples.
If you ever study the War of the Roses era you’ll notice that lots of the protagonists are chiefly referred to by their title. You might think this is because that title is a measure of their involvement ‘Ah yes, it’s relevant that the Duke of Gloucester was that because his forces were from Gloucester’ but quite often you’d be wrong. Richard of Gloucester- which one? – the one who became Richard III – had a lot of support in Leicestershire, which doesn’t even fit the Lancashire vs Yorkshire paradigm. You wouldn’t write it this way. It would be far more satisfying to have there be something distinctive about the people of Gloucestershire, unique warriors with an unusual set of skills, that informed the following campaign.
Even so, this is not the major flaw. The reason titles are used is because everyone had the same bloody name. Or rather, they had a very narrow set of names. Richards, Henrys and Edwards made up a significant fraction of the male nobility of the time. Similar problems occur on the female side with Elizabeths and Marys. This is by no means restricted to this period. Romans gave multiple names precisely to avoid the chaos that would be caused simply by referring to someone as Gaius. Gaius? You know, Gaius? The one who was stabbed by the senators. Fine, let’s just use his other names ‘Julius Caesar’. In fiction, writers tend to avoid this kind of confusion as much as possible, for which readers are generally grateful.
Dying quietly in exile
Imagine this for a story…the final battle has been won and the evil (or good, depending on which side you’re on) King has been forced to surrender. Now comes the justice, now comes the reckoning, this tyrant shall pay by…going away somewhere else. Ahh, I see where this is going. The evil King will now plot from exile and this is the set up for the sequel, got you. What? He’s just going to live out his life and do nothing? But he’s assassinated, yeah? Or the guilt causes him to commit suicide? No? You mean this big baddie we’ve been building up just goes away and lives a normal life for the rest of his years before dying of natural causes? Who writes this crap?
That’s not to say many an exiled King or Queen hasn’t plotted in exile. This was standard behaviour for ousted monarchs of the middle ages but quite often throughout time they just stay in exile. For every Napolean of Elba, a short time away from a comeback, there’s a Napolean of St Helena, banished then, somewhat prosaically, dying of stomach cancer or a Kaiser Wilhelm dying at the age of 82 after over twenty years absence. In his case the sequel happened without him.
Absence of a central hero
Great historical events are usually ensemble affairs. It’s generally quite rare that a single personality sees them through from beginning to the end. History is a perpetual relay event where one stops and another continues, only much, much messier than that. This is true even with fairly straightforward things like inventions. Who invented the whatnot? Often as not the person who is credited with it was only adapting someone else’s existing ideas or, if they genuinely are the progenitor, it wasn’t until some time later that their ideas were put into effect. That miracle drug didn’t save a single life until the next person in the line tinkered with it so that it was usable.
That’s not how a story tends to go. The protagonist dying fifty years before their work pays off would be in the territory of a downer ending. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be worth writing that story it’s just those kind of stories tend to become the stuff of prologues and back stories. Consider that if instead of being the story of Frodo, Lord of the Rings was the story of Isildur and ends with the ambush of the Gladden Fields and a little post-script with ‘2,000 or so years later Isildur’s work was finished by a hobbit’.
This often comes into play when people try to make adaptations of history. It would be so much simpler if after event 1, the protagonist became King or Queen and this led to event 2. Instead, what often happens is event 1 is followed by the sibling being King or Queen for two years where important event 2 happens that in turn leads to important event 3, which really was the protagonist’s moment.
In times of high infant mortality multiple siblings were common and, of course, so were early deaths. This both led to more frequent changes of leadership and tasks being divided amongst the family. As with the point before, a single hero can’t be everywhere and siblings were very often the ones who starred at an important moment only to die ingloriously so soon afterwards their role falls somewhere between cameo and supporting and leaves them in prime territory for ‘editing for content’.
Not all battles produce a clear result on the day where the hero or villain is slain and one side emerges victorious. Sometimes it is a stalemate and both sides go away frustrated and feeling defeated. Other times, even decisive victories don’t feel like decisive victories at the time. It is only later and in concurrence with events happening elsewhere that the true result becomes apparent.
Look at the battle of Jutland. It was a bad day for the British Navy and one much better than expected for the German one. On the other hand, it was the beginning of the end for the German navy’s involvement in the war. They would end up retreating and eventually being scuttled. In retrospect, they would have needed to do much, much better than expected to claim a victory. Given the eventual result, if that were a story the German Navy would have been all but destroyed that day.
In a similar vein, for all the many battles with hideously high casualty rates there are many battles where less than 10% of those who took part were killed on either side -for point of reference, the Battle of the Boyne, generally considered a decisive and significant encounter, is thought to have had a casualty rate of under 4%. Certainly tragic for that small percentage but unlikely to be how it goes in the feature film.
Should it matter?
Ultimately, concluding that fiction isn’t life real life is hardly a revelation but what can we take from this? From a reader’s perspective there is always a balance to be had between being surprised and feeling unsatisfied. Stories need endings one way or another even if they are but a small part of a much wider picture.
From a writer’s perspective, I think there are lessons to be learnt. We should be prepared to acknowledge the ensemble nature of the world and that the events of our stories and the deeds of our protagonists happen within a context where a great many others will play their part. Likewise, we should be prepared to embrace a bit of messiness sometimes. There is conflict between the chaos of real history against the order of a fixed narrative. As with life, these two sides must be reconciled.