Theme and Character in the Historical Novel

STEVEN PRESSFIELD speaks of his experiences

From time to time, critics have taken me to task for certain omissions in books I’ve written, particularly when the book was centered on a true historical personage. “Why did you leave out such-and-such an incident?”, “How come you didn’t include so-and-so?”

The answer is simple. I’m not writing a biography, I’m writing a novel.

This confusion affects all of us who write or read historical fiction. I think it contributes, as well, to historical fiction not being taken as seriously as it deserves, or being treated as a stepchild among literary genres. Let’s examine it.

What is a biography anyway? A biography is the “life story” of an historical individual. Its legitimate object is to give us the measure of its subject from birth to death in all his or her contradictions and complexities.

A novel is different. A novel picks a theme and focuses on that.

If it’s an historical novel, it picks a theme that (hopefully) arises organically out of the true historical era or the life of the central character, and then uses versions of actual historical characters (and a few fictional ones, if necessary) to illuminate that theme.

Paddy Chayevsky said this about writing a play: “Once I figure out what the theme of the work is, I type it out in one sentence and tape it to the front of my typewriter. After that, nothing goes into the play that isn’t on that theme.”

Shakespeare worked the same way. Julius Caesar was not “about” Julius Caesar, any more than Hamlet was “about” the historical Melancholy Dane. The real-life figures were only a starting point for Shakespeare. In each play (and all his other historical works) the great dramatist first found his theme, then built his characters and constructed his narrative to express that theme.

In other words, he did exactly what a writer of “pure” fiction does.

Admittedly it gets tricky with historical characters. Questions arise: How true should we remain, as writers, to actual historical fact? How much license can we take when shaping characters who really existed?

Here’s how the process works with me. First, something grabs me. A character. An event. A moment in time. Usually I don’t know why. (Notice Paddy Chayevsky said “Once I figure out …” – meaning he didn’t have it all worked out from the start.)

I pursue this vague sensation that has seized me. I read. I start writing. I think.

What I’m looking for is the theme. What the hell is this thing about anyway? Am I within my rights to impose a theme on the material? I don’t think so. The theme should arise organically out of the historical era or the historical events.

Here’s an example. In Tides of War, as I began to work on it, I knew the central character (though not necessarily the protagonist) would be Alcibiades. I knew the events would be those of the Peloponnesian War and the fall of Athens. Then why, I kept asking myself, do I find myself compelled to keep writing other scenes about other, secondary characters? Finally it hit me.

This book is not “about” Alcibiades; it’s about the jealousy that Athens (and by extension all democracies) felt toward its exceptional leaders, and how that jealousy impelled the citizenry to tear down those leaders, even at the cost of the ruin of the state.

Okay. Now we’re getting somewhere. Now we have a theme. (Note how different this model is from a biography of Alcibiades.) Now I understand why the secondary characters feel so important to me. Because they represent Athens. They represent the theme: the love/hate dynamic that the city found itself in, in relation to Alcibiades – and other exceptional personalities, including Socrates.

Now we can answer our question about being true to the reality of historical characters. Yes, we should try. Indeed we should never deliberately turn them on their heads. We owe that much to them. But, in the end, theme comes first. Cassius might have to become a little leaner and a little hungrier, in the service of the theme.

Now, too, we can answer our critics who quiz us, Why did you leave such-and-such a famous incident out? Because it wasn’t on-theme. Because it had nothing to do with the story we were endeavouring to tell.

In a novel, remember, no character stands solely for himself. Each character represents something greater. He represents an aspect of the theme. Thus, when Character A clashes with Character B, we as readers perceive something more meaningful than just two people beating each other’s brains out. We experience the confrontation of opposed moral perspectives, of clashing views of reality.

Ideally, in historical fiction, the writer hits upon the true theme of the era or events she’s writing about (What were the Napoleonic Wars really about? What was the real significance of Queen Esther’s actions?) and uses true historical characters legitimately to illuminate that theme.

Bad historical fiction either emphasizes illegitimate themes (say, imposing a contemporary paradigm on an historical era or event where such modern notions don’t fit) or ignores theme entirely.

When historical fiction is really good, it not only selects a theme that arises legitimately from the era, but also shows us how that theme is relevant to our lives today. Wallace Breem’s extraordinary novel Eagle in the Snow tells the story of a beleaguered Roman legion going down before the relentless barbarian advance, and, by being absolutely true to that, makes us feel that we, in our time, are facing similar savage hordes – even if those barbarians are gaping back at us from our own mirrors.

Historical fiction is not biography. It should not be confused with or measured against the standards of biography. Each genre has its own conventions. In historical fiction at its best, a theme arises out of true historical events and characters, and that theme is what the work is about. It’s not about the historical characters, except as their actions coincide with the theme. The characters, we hope, will be depicted as true-to-historical-reality as any of us can know. But in the end their purpose is the same as in a non-historical novel. They’re there to serve the theme.

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Steven Pressfield is the author of Gates of Fire and the upcoming (October 2004) The Virtues of War, a Novel of Alexander the Great (Doubleday U.K and U.S.).

First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, v.8 no.1 (May 2004): 20-21.

Posted by Sarah Johnson

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