Is truth more interesting than fiction? The conflict between veracity and dramatic impact in historical fiction

Is truth more interesting than fiction? The conflict between veracity and dramatic impact in historical fiction

Emily Sutherland

Proceedings of the 12th Conference of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs,Canberra, November (2007)


For those writers who use lives within fiction there is a constant tension between portraying the truth about a person, as closely as that truth can be known, and the creation of the dramatic narrative. This tension is highlighted when recent historical research reveals that accepted knowledge about certain characters is questioned and may be erroneous. I wish to examine two such instances that impact significantly on the way I portray both Heloise and Hildegard of Bingen, who are two of the main characters in my thesis novel.


Writers of fiction who choose to rely heavily on historical characters or events have certain advantages over those who write purely from their imagination. Because historical persons are notable in some way they are intrinsically interesting. Their characters and the main events in their lives have already been established, and there is often a degree of reader prior-recognition. These advantages come with constraints, which act as impediments to a writer’s creativity. The writer must conform, to a large degree, to what is already known about the characters or the historical events. Imagination comes into play in filling in the gaps, or ascribing motivation to the characters. For example I may suggest reasons why Joan of Arc fought the English army, but I cannot insist that she was, rather than a soldier, a pacifist who stayed on the farm tending her geese. That would have had to be another Joan.

Click here to read this article from the Australasian Association of Writing Programs