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Comparing & Contrasting a Fictional Portrayal to Historical Accounts

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

Many novels take events or people from history and treat them in a fictional manner. The author may make significant changes to the historical facts, but in doing so it can give the reader a deeper understanding of history.

Fact and Fiction

A Tale of Two Cities. Mad Men. Johnny Tremain. Selma. The Book Thief. Gone with the Wind. Gladiator.

What do these books, TV shows, and movies all have in common? They are all examples of historical fiction, a type of fictional book, movie, or TV series that is set in the past and incorporates elements of actual history into its story. Historical fiction often focuses on famous events in history like World War II or The French Revolution and includes real historical figures.

However, it is important to remember that these are works of fiction, not history. Historical fictions, even those based on real people, often take liberties when altering the facts of history: moving around events, condensing timelines, and inventing brand new characters.

But that doesn't mean historical fiction is 'lying' to you. Historical fiction has a different purpose than a textbook. It is trying to show the reader or viewer what it was like to live in this particular time in order to reach them on an emotional level. Good historical fiction can give you a new perspective on historical events, but you have to know how to consume it carefully and compare and contrast it with historical accounts. Together, historical fiction and nonfiction history should work together to give you a full understanding of history.

Who Are These People?

One important question to ask about historical fiction is, ''Which characters does the story focus on?'' Some works of historical fiction, like the movie Selma, focus on real people. In the case of Selma, the story focuses on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other civil rights leaders who worked to pass the Voting Rights Act. But often, works of historical fiction will invent new characters. In A Tale of Two Cities, for example, Charles Dickens invents a set of fictional characters who are impacted by the French Revolution.

It is important to know if the characters portrayed in historical fiction are based on real people. If they are, it is important to compare and contrast the fictional portrayal with a nonfiction biography of the person. Did Martin Luther King, Jr. actually say the words that actor David Oyelowo says in his portrayal of Dr. King in Selma? Does the movie leave out important parts of his biography?

If the characters are fictional, ask yourself why the author invented them. Often, characters in historical fiction are created to stand in for large groups of people. The character of the Monseigneur in A Tale of Two Cities is Dickens' portrait of clueless French aristocrats whose cruelty to the poor led to the French Revolution.

Fictional characters can also be used to challenge historical assumptions. The hero of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Darnay, is also a French aristocrat, but he challenges the stereotype that all aristocrats as clueless and cruel.

When Did That Happen?

After considering the characters, it is also important to consider how the author frames their portrayal of the events. Generally, real life does not unfold in a neat narrative, so fiction writers will often condense time and move events around to add to the dramatic tension.

In Gone with the Wind, for example, Margaret Mitchell severely condenses the early years of the Civil War and skips past them in a few pages. She does this to move the story, and her heroine Scarlett, from the time right before the war, when the book begins, to the darkest days of the war for the South. The early years of the war are not important to the story of Scarlett O'Hara, so Mitchell skips past them, even though the book is about the Civil War.

Why Were the Changes Made?

After looking at the changes the author made to characterizations and timeline, the next, and most important question to ask is, ''Why were the changes made?'' And relatedly, how much do the changes cause the fictional account to diverge from the historical account?

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