Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Historical Fiction & A Game of Thrones

Last August, I wrote a post about the excellent Starz original series The White Queen titled “The White Queen & A Game of Thrones.” The post commented on an article from that made a connection between The War of the Roses—the setting for The White Queen—and George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Last week, Rolling Stone re-ran an interview with Martin that touched on that same subject, and I’ve included some of the more interesting quotes below.

Q: With the exception of the fantasy elements, Game of Thrones might well have been a reimagination of the Wars of the Roses.
I did consider at a very early stage – going all the way back to 1991 – whether to include overt fantasy elements, and at one point thought of writing a Wars of the Roses novel. But the problem with straight historical fiction is you know what's going to happen. If you know anything about the Wars of the Roses, you know that the princes in the tower aren't going to escape. I wanted to make it more unexpected, bring in some more twists and turns. The main question was the dragons: Do I include dragons? I knew I wanted to have the Targaryens have their symbol be the dragons; the Lannisters have the lions, the Starks have the wolves. Should these things be literal here? Should the Targaryens actually have dragons? I was discussing this with a friend, writer Phyllis Eisenstein – I dedicated the third book to her – and she said, "George, it's a fantasy – you've got to put in the dragons." She convinced me, and it was the right decision. Now that I'm deep into it, I can't imagine the book without the dragons.
Later in the interview, he talks a little bit more about his interest in history:
History was my minor in college. I don't pretend to be a historian. Modern historians are interested in sociopolitical trends. I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in the stories. History is written in blood, a gold mine – the kings, the princes, the generals and the whores, and all the betrayals and wars and confidences. It's better than 90 percent of what the fantasists do make up.
You can read the complete interview here at

As a writer of historical fantasy, I agree with everything Martin says. It’s true that with pure historical fiction, an informed reader will always know how the historical story ends. In my own works, which are set it the historical Middle Ages, I try to make the main plot less connected to the outcome of real historical events to preserve some sense of the “unexpected” that Martin talks about. I also love his view on what makes history interesting—because it’s written in blood—and I agree that real history is usually far more interesting than your average fantasy fiction. Martin, of course, strikes the perfect balance in A Song of Ice and Fire, which is one of the reasons, I believe, the books have been so successful.

But I’m curious to know what you think – does pure historical fiction rob the reader of a bit of the unexpected, and do you prefer fantasy for that reason? Or do you find the “written in blood” real history to be more interesting than anything 90% of the fantasists write? Leave a comment and let me know!


Bill said...

Great question, Joe. I dearly love historical fiction, particularly the "age of sail" genre and military history. I find myself more able to get involved when the characters are brought to life by a good novelist. I enjoy both stories where I know what will happen and those where the details are lost in the mists of time.

Fantasy such as Martin's can very much involve my interest, but it must have an internal logic. That's the key.

Matt Oaks said...

I have trouble reading historical novels that are set so far back in time. Unless like Bill said the novelist is amazing, then I can put myself there. I am reading Strange Birth by Julian Stone, it's set in the 1950's so much easier for me to picture, but he is a great writer so I guess that is a double plus! I recommend his book to the ones that enjoy more recent history, is his site and book info is there.

Joseph Finley said...

Bill and Matt, thanks for the comments! I'm a huge fan of Bernard Cornwell, and I think his historical novels have plenty of the unexpected. I think one of the reasons is that he usually makes his main character a fictional person -- so the character's fate is always in doubt, regardless of how much one knows about history. I think that when authors write historical fiction where the main character is a recognized historical figure, like Julius Caesar, the unexpected goes by the wayside since everyone knows how he'll meet his end.

Matt, thanks for the tip. I'll check out the books by Julian Stone!