Sunday, October 25, 2009

Author bias

Author bias. Is it possible to write historical fiction without it? Does objectivity fly out the window when an author presents a character's point of view?

Hmm, uhhh... yeah. If the author didn't pick whose side to be on in the story, how would she ever get the reader to cheer for the dashing hero or feisty heroine and boo at the villain?

But what about non-fiction authors? Are historians biased? How could they be if history is supposed to be about the facts? This is a problem historical fiction writers are frequently faced with when researching their subjects. Even when delving into primary sources, bias can be present and secondary sources often perpetuate these. The truth is not always easy to sort out.

Researching the murder of John 'the Red' Comyn at Greyfriar's Kirk in Dumfries in 1306 brings about a key question: Who exactly killed him? Robert the Bruce - or someone else? The chronicles of the Englishman Walter of Guiseborough claim the Bruce lured Comyn to the church with muderous intentions; the writings of John Fordoun, a Scotsman of the time, stresses Comyn's betrayal of the Bruce. If you read a translation of the well-known Lanercrost Chronicle, a recording of happenings at the the time by holy men in an abbey just south of the Scottish border, then Bruce 'seditiously' lured Comyn to the church and 'did slay him'. Ronald McNair Scott's 'Robert the Bruce, King of Scots', refers to 'oral tradition' and a 19th century chronicle called Liber Pluscardiensis. Scott writes that Bruce confronted Comyn about his treachery, they quarreled, Bruce struck the first blow and then one of his companions, Roger Kirkpatrick, killed Comyn.

When examining an event that occured centuries ago, the facts are often muted, muddled and scattered. The English version of Comyn's death is obviously going to have a different slant to it than the Scottish one. It just goes to show you there are two sides to every story.

Until later,


Jen Black said...

...was anyone else there to report what happened? Would they tell the truth? Or follow the party line to save their own necks? No journalists around the spread the word, unfortiunately

Brian Wainwright said...

The more I read of 'history' the more convinced I am that it's no more factual than 'historical fiction.' Bias abounds, and is inevitable.

When I write I generally try to be fair to the 'other side'. Arguably this weakens the story! Some readers like everything black-and-white, even in these supposedly sophisticed days.

N. Gemini Sasson said...

Hi Jen and Brian! Having spent a few years of my life in scientific research, I can tell you that even in such a seemingly straightforward field as environmental biology, it's all too easy to develop a bias, pick and choose resources, and refute opposing views. The choniclers of the past did this. Biographers today do it. In short, adopting a bias does, to some degree, make one's story more convincing and subsequently more interesting, IMO.