Fiction Writers Should Write (and Read!) History

For among mortal powers, only imagination can bring back the dead.

-Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn

People, real people, are very complex. At the same time, if you can get to know them well enough you can get in their head and anticipate what they’ll do.  An interesting aspect of history is how much of it is trying to do just that. The more you study history the more you come to realize that the facts on record are only a part of the historian’s responsibility. Getting in the heads of historical figures and trying to make sense of what was happening there and extrapolate it to the broader context of history is a big part of what drives the understanding of history forward, giving new routes of inquiry to pursue and new context to existing facts.

It’s also part of what makes history so dangerous – surmises of what historical figures thought cannot be confirmed, only supported or doubted based on available evidence. The best historians run down sources, carefully weigh them against each other and come to well reason conclusions. Two excellent examples of this are Evan Thomas’ Sea of Thunder and Tom Carhart’s Lost Triumph.

Lost Triumph is an excellent example of both sides of this kind of historical work. Carhart begins with a thesis concerning Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s plans for winning the Battle of Gettysburg. While not exactly a new thesis it is one that is disputed – in particular by others with differing opinions on the usefulness of the units in question or the lay of the terrain. Carhart then goes back to Lee’s early career, including his time as Commandant of West Point and the kinds of curriculum he encouraged, and traces forward the kinds of strategy he taught and later employed, then ends with conclusions, based on what we do know happened at Gettysburg, as to what Lee’s strategy was.

While the evidence Carhart presents is strong and well documented the shortcomings of the book are pretty noteworthy, too. Lee wrote very little about the Civil War after the fact (and what little he did say is all brought up in the course of the book) and none of it supports or disproves Carhart’s thesis. Further, many of Carhart’s suppositions are either unsupported by anything said or written by those present, contradict some of Lee’s other behaviors or don’t match the prevailing understanding of units and tactics of the day. It’s a sound work of historical supposition as it stands but it also can’t be proven one way or the other.

Sea of Thunder is a bit more reserved. As a study in leadership it’s a very careful book, examining the commanders in question mostly through what they’d written and what others had written or said about them. In particular, the book’s handling of the question of why Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita turned away from Leyte Gulf is exemplary. Thomas examines every possible explanation – he was tired, he was scared, he didn’t want to doom his ships and men uselessly, he felt there wasn’t enough information to press on, he believed saving the fleet was more important than his objectives – and weighs them in order from what seems least likely to what seems most likely. He cites the evidence that supports each supposition. But he never definitively says why Kurita left the battle. Kurita took that secret to the grave, and Thomas respected that fact.

Why is this important to fiction writers? The answer is simple. The methods historical scholars use to understand historical figures are the same methods you should use to understand your fictional characters. Well researched, thought out and written historical studies dig deep into the psychology, decision making and circumstances of the people they examine and the approaches they take can really help you dig into the minds of your own characters. Of course, you are making up the many factors that contribute to your character’s decisions and that can make things more difficult.

Too many authors warp circumstance or a character’s thoughts to fit their desires for a story’s plot, making for awkward and unsatisfying stories. Carefully analyzing your characters in the same way historical authors analyze historical figures can help you avoid these unsatisfying moments and write your characters more realistically and vividly. It may require you think over your stories and characters more. A lot more. But in the end the better outcomes will be worth it.

The heart of great fiction is verisimilitude. The more realistic your characters are in their emotions and decisions, the greater their sense of realism, and the more you can ground even the most fantastic story in your reader’s minds. Avail yourself of the fantastic resource that is well written history, and maybe even try your hand at writing some yourself. You can only grow from the effort.

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