There are many advantages to using a history as a basis for a narrative. History is a vast and ready-made store of cultural practises, personalities, events, and social phenomena. Indeed, the fact that history is made up of narratives and ready-made stories is in the very composition of the word. In many cases, it is almost harder to avoid relying on history – either directly or in the form of historically inspired tropes – than to do otherwise. Indeed, the foundations of many genres of fiction rely heavily on the historical context which either inspired them, or gave birth to them – be it the European high middle ages for conventional high fantasy, the age of sail and the 19th century heyday of colonialist adventure for space opera, or the social dynamics of Regency-era landed gentry for romance and the comedy of manners.
I think there’s a pretty obvious reason for this. One of the main tasks of putting together a “good” narrative is in creating a story which maintains the audience’s suspension of disbelief. If the creator cannot convince the audience that the story they are telling is founded on a consistent logic which fits the characters and the setting, then it becomes incredibly difficult for that audience to invest themselves in that story. What a historical or historically-inspired setting offers is a certain guarantee in that regard, a promise, or at least an implication, of verisimilitude. These things actually happened in the past, so the argument goes. If they actually happened, then clearly, the sequence of events being presented must in some way possess an internal logic. If a story claims – implicitly or explicitly – to be at least partially based on events which actually occurred, on people who actually lived, and societies which actually existed, then it becomes a lot easier to convince the audience that those events, people, and societies can exist in a fictional narrative as well.
This advantage, however, comes with a heavy responsibility. The implication of verisimilitude is a sword that cuts both ways. Just as an audience will assume that a work set in, or clearly inspired by history will be set to a certain standard of authenticity, they can also internalise the idea that the fictional portrayal of that historical source is a faithful interpretation of what that history is. Although most people are perfectly capable of telling the difference between reality and fiction when they are consciously making an effort to do so, this sort of intentional discernment requires a certain understanding that the information they are ingesting is, indeed, fictional. When a creator makes a narrative which relies on the assumption of historical verisimilitude, they are asking their audience to have faith that the history which their narrative is based on is being represented authentically and honestly – and short of actually committing the time and effort and money to acquire the tools to study that historical source for themselves at an academic level, they have no reliable means of being able to tell a story based on authentic history, and one based on a distorted or misleading view of it.
The problem this poses is one that goes beyond the art of worldbuilding and storytelling, and it has ramifications beyond that of making a story “better” or “worse”. If an audience assumes that a narrative inspired by or set during historical phenomena portrays those phenomena faithfully, then the interpretation of the events in question will contribute to the audience’s understanding of that phenomena. A good interpretation can overturn popular misconceptions and generate interest in commonly ignored fields of study. A bad interpretation can reinforce pseudo-historical myths, encourage misconceptions, and even cause negative ramifications in wider society.
There is a pretty simple reason for this: the decisions humans make for the present and the future are based on their knowledge of the past. For a lot of everyday decisions, this is based on personal experience: people will prefer to eat the food they enjoyed before, they’ll associate with the people they’ve had previous positive experiences with, they’ll avoid things which have hurt them in the past. When there is no personal experience to draw on, people will draw on the personal experiences of others, as interpreted by history. When a person needs to understand the world and make decisions which may affect it, their decisions are informed by their understanding of history. Their interactions with people they’ve never personally met before, what causes they support or oppose, how they see groups which they have never met or places they’ve never visited, all of that is based on how well they understand that group or place’s history. A distorted understanding of history causes a distorted understanding of the world, which can lead to the making of unwise decisions, the support of unworthy causes, or even the fostering of unwarranted hatred.
This isn’t a mere theoretical argument – the ways in which influential pieces of media have distorted our own society are clear enough if you know where to look: Birth of a Nation‘s malicious misinterpretation of the aftermath of the American Civil War led to a new wave of racist violence at the hands of a rejuvenated Ku Klux Klan adhering to that narrative’s pseudo-history. Media interpretations of the Roman Empire as far more racially homogenous and more heteronormative than it was in reality have underpinned modern political arguments against immigration and multiculturalism. The perception of the European Middle Ages as racially homogenous, dominated by absolute monarchies; and entirely bereft of the influence of commoners, women, and overseas cultural and economic exchange has been a legacy of the popularisation of high fantasy settings which transparently take their aesthetic inspiration from a surface-level understanding of the high medieval period – a legacy which continues to lead to a streak of ethnonationalism and reactionarism within the genre and its audience today.
So how do we avoid this for our own works? It’d be easy for me to say that the key is something as simple as doing your research and reading your sources carefully, but that wouldn’t really be the case. After all, in a lot of cases, the creators of works inspired by or set in misinterpreted historical settings are ones who have done a great deal of reading on the topic. Indeed, most creators who consciously base their settings on historical source material are already enthusiastic consumers of literature and media regarding that same setting. Yet even this may not be enough to keep a creator from creating works based on a distorted idea of what actually happened.
That’s because the idea of history as a discipline for evaluating past decisions and phenomena is actually a very recent one, especially outside of academia. The more traditional definition of history – the one which is still taught in compulsory education – is more intended to exist as a form of national storytelling, a codified way of passing down a curated narrative of how a given society got to where they are. Primarily, this was a means to build a certain level of civic or ethnic pride, to hold up one’s ancestors and predecessors as heroic figures, whose traditions and achievements are worthy of respect and emulation. This often manifested in two forms: the elevation of “great men”, and the marginalisation or erasure of any historical context which might inconvenience a nationalist narrative.
Great Man Theory is born from a human desire to have heroes to root for and villains to hate. As the traditional understanding of history saw it as a means of cultural myth-making first and a means of informing decision making second, this meant that traditional historical narratives have focused more on prominent individuals rather than the societies and institutions which shaped and created them: thus, we learn that Wellington beat Napoleon at Waterloo, that Qin Shi Huang united China, that Hitler perpetrated the Holocaust. Of the millions of individuals who taught these larger-than-life figures, assisted them in their ambitions, and did the dirty work of carrying out their crimes, the traditional understanding of history cares very little: they are characters in the story, but not the protagonists, so to speak. By minimising the all-important context that surrounded them and shaped them, Great Man theory gives the impression that history itself was shaped by a very small number of remarkable individuals.
This ties into the second form, the idea that history should be a story of a given culture or nation’s past, told in a way which holds up the nation and the “Great Men” who are seen as having been instrumental in its development as worthy of respect, if not reverence. In addition, this tendency further narrows down exactly who the protagonists of a given historical narrative can be: only those who stand out as champions of the nation can be given pride of place. Those who serve as useful heroes for the story of a nation or society are elevated. Those who do not fit in on how a nation wishes to see itself are ignored, or intentionally erased. American textbooks do not like talking about the Tulsa Massacre or the Freedmen who joined the British in the War of 1812, just as British Textbooks do not like talking about the Bengal Famine, just as Japanese textbooks do not like talking about the Rape of Nanjing or the Bombings of Chongqing or the Manilla Massacre.
What this means is that the “history” that results from these still-entrenched tendencies tend to be heavily biased, and either consciously or unconsciously designed to glorify or justify the roles of those who are considered to fit the self-perceived narrative of a dominant cultural group in any given society. They may well be true, in the sense that they recount things that actually happened. However, the way which they erase some aspects of history and edify others means that the picture they paint will necessarily lack the necessary context to provide a full picture. Thus, even those creators who’ve “done their research” can still be working from a false, or distorted foundation.
I’ve talked a lot so far about how important it is to get a good understanding of the history you mean to use, and how even well-intentioned attempts to get the history right can lead a creator astray thanks to the biases inherent in the teaching of history. In the second part of this topic, I’ll finally be talking about some ways to avoid those pitfalls.