Scotland the Bravehearted – historical accuracy in fiction

Posted: November 7, 2013 in watching, writing
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

It’s been nearly 20 years, but I think I might finally be ready to forgive Braveheart. As a history graduate who specialised in that era, this is a big step for me. I used to rant at great length about the dreadful historical errors that riddle that film. But recently I’ve been doing some freelance work writing historical narratives, and it’s made me re-evaluate my own perspective on this.

Why all the anger?

I used to hate Braveheart with a fiery passion. The Battle of Stirling Bridge was missing the vital bridge. Mel Gibson impregnates a seven year old girl who’s living in another country. The kilts. And so on and so on. When Lee and Herring did their ‘freedom’ sketch, they could have been speaking for me.


Why should I let go?

But writing about the Middle Ages again, trying to create an exciting non-fiction narrative from the limited events of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, has forced me to change my tune. It’s not that I’ve accepted inaccuracy – I am sticking to the truth as we know it – but turning that truth into a story involves making subjective choices about emphasis and interpretation. Even as a trained historian writing about real history, I’m projecting my own perspective, my own agenda, onto the past.

Was Robert the Bruce an inspired national hero or a calculating opportunist? Was Julius Caesar a power-grabbing ego-maniac or a realist who saw that the republic couldn’t govern an empire? The minute we start exploring questions like these, we’re no longer in factual territory. But we can’t turn history into stories without making a decision on which way to show it.

My friend Clare2043 actually called me on this six months ago. She’s studied historical film from a film-making perspective, so views it rather differently from me. As she pointed out, historical films are something we create, rather than flashes of reality. They represent us interacting with the past, using it to explore modern concerns – in Braveheart, questions of freedom, oppression and national consciousness. The aim isn’t to present factual truth, it’s to create a great film that encourages us to take an interest in the past. If that leads us to explore the truth afterwards, then great. While Braveheart led to a massive worldwide delusion on the subject of William Wallace, by fostering interest in him it also vastly increased the number of people who were well informed about the era.

Why does it still matter?

This isn’t to say that this doesn’t matter. Marina Oliver, in Writing Historical Fiction, points out that an inaccuracy can destroy the credibility of your story for a well informed reader. And those well informed readers, the ones who know history, are the ones most likely to pick up a work of historical fiction or historically set fantasy. They’re also the best advocates, enthusiastic about material that deals with their favourite subject, connected to others who will be interested. You want them on board.

And using real history can strengthen your fiction. Look at some of the tips everwalker picked up in a recent workshop with Tim Powers. That man knows how to use history in fantasy.

Drawing the line

I still think that Braveheart went far further than it needed to in messing with reality. The truth of that period was far more exciting, there was no need to piss Hollywood nonsense all over it. But at least it was an enjoyable film, so while I’ll still criticise it, I no longer hate it. The Patriot, on the other hand? Urgh.

So if you’re writing or reading fiction set in the past, think about where the inaccuracies go. What do they contribute to the story? And in factual terms, do they really matter?

  1. […] Scotland the Bravehearted – historical accuracy in fiction […]

  2. Theresa C. Crawford says:

    I’m of the mindset with my own fiction to ask the reader to believe only one or two impossible things before breakfast. In my first novel, there’s time travel and a big coincidence– so, I worked like the dickens to make sure everything else was as historically accurate as I could make it. There’ll probably be a buff or two who’ll point out where I missed the mark, but at least I aimed and tried to hit it. Hewing to real history wherever possible gives the writing resonance and a gut-deep feeling of truth that even people who don’t know much about the period seem to pick up on and appreciate.

    You make a very important point that we’re writing historical *fiction,* not straight history. So yes, there’s going to be some subjectivity, and motives and emphasis that were perhaps not present in the period in reality. That’s fine. It’s fiction, it’s not a textbook or a history. The primary reason for the existence of fiction is to tell an entertaining story, in whatever setting the author chooses.

    All fiction, even the fluffiest, explores aspects of the writer’s current society and inner life, whether we mean for it to be that overtly or not. I’m not certain that a story could be written that doesn’t, since everything in it from the words chosen to the character’s personalities, come from inside the author’s psyche, and any research first passes through personal interpretation filters,

    Still, blatant anachronisms do grate, especially when they’re easily avoided (like those darn kilts) or when the real history is far more exciting and convoluted and romantic than the scriptwriter’s effort.

    I join you in hoping that maybe more people know of William Wallace than they did before Braveheart. Even those who swallow the Hollywood version as their only truth recognize his name now and know he’s somehow important to the history of Scotland. That’s more than most of us picked up in school, sad to say.

    • I think your comment about a ‘gut-deep feeling of truth’, as well as being perfectly phrased, highlights something I missed out on in the post. While those with a deep knowledge of history will consciously pick up on anachronisms, if it doesn’t feel authentic then others will notice as well. They may not recognise what’s bothering them, but that feeling that something’s not quite right may still put them off. After all, we all get some idea of what the past was like in school, and even if we don’t remember the details, that impression lingers with us.

  3. […] well as the Stirling Bridge narrative that led me to reconsider Braveheart, I recently did some freelance writing about the Battle of Agincourt. But proud as I am of what I […]

  4. […] It’s an interestingly different setting, one that emphasises the world-building aspects of fantasy rather than the magical ones. It’s a bit like chopping the most wacky ten percent off of George R R Martin’s Westeros and leaving behind the world of people and politics. It lets Kay explore the possibilities and wonders of a historical period without being tied down to specific events and without the risk of someone turning round and calling him out for historical inaccuracy. […]

  5. […] most scathing critics be so harsh if she only sold a few thousand books a year? Would I get angry about Braveheart if it hadn’t made […]

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