David J. Cord, author Dead Romans, is my guest today, and he's contributed a provocative essay about historical accuracy – a subject of perpetual importance – and the ways in which writers can choose to interpret their source material. For his discussion on the matter, he goes back to the classics. Welcome, David!
Aristotle and Accuracy in Historical Fiction
David J. Cord
In the 2006 film Marie Antoinette, there is a scene of the young queen trying on shoes. Amidst all the footwear scattered across the floor is a pair of light blue Converse basketball shoes. The shoes were only one of many deliberate anachronisms put into the movie by Sofia Coppola. This loose adherence to historical accuracy annoyed many viewers and critics, but was it really all that bad?
In Aristotle’s time, many of the plays dealt with characters and situations which were familiar to the audience. This was very similar to historical fiction today, where the reader knows the historical facts behind the story. Interestingly, Aristotle did not insist upon historical accuracy.
In Poetics, Aristotle says the difference between a historian and a writer of fiction (or poet) is “that one tells what happened and the other what might happen… poetry tends to give general truths while history gives particular facts.”
This is because Aristotle says the primary job of a fiction writer is to arouse emotions and to create a representation of life and action. Her goal “is not to tell what actually happened but what could and would happen either probably or inevitably” according to the rules of the world in which the story is placed. Here is how I interpret Aristotle, using my book Dead Romans as an example.
One of the main characters of Dead Romans is Panthea, the mistress of the Roman Emperor Lucius Verus. She was a real person, but the information about her is limited. One source says she came from a poor family, another says she was very intelligent and beautiful, and a third claims she was uncommonly devoted to her paramour.
But I believe that it would make a better story if Panthea had not always been so devoted to her lover. I think it would be much more interesting if she was once habitually disloyal, in fact. Do we have any proof Panthea betrayed Lucius? No – in fact, we have proof that she probably didn’t, because Marcus Aurelius cites her loyalty in his Meditations. Yet to fit the rules of my story she is a frequent betrayer, and Marcus’ idea of her loyalty is eventually explained in the book. This was my way of prioritising the story but still remaining true to what we know of her based on our sources.
|author David J. Cord|
In the movie Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola did not try to accurately depict the life and times of the queen. If she had wanted to do so, it would have been a different movie. Instead she wanted the modern audience to understand the emotions of the character as a teenager, and to do that she used modern teenage images, like Converse sneakers. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even notice the shoes when I first saw the movie. I was so drawn to the story that I wasn’t paying attention to historical nuggets, and even if I had seen the shoes I probably wouldn’t have minded. I suspect if Aristotle was alive today, he wouldn’t have minded either.
David J. Cord is a writer living in Helsinki, Finland. Dead Romans was published by Stairway Press in September 2013 in trade paperback ($19.95). For more information, see the author’s website at www.davidcord.com.