History is the most important story of all time. It tells us about the human condition. Which is essential learning for creative writers. In addition to experience, books serve as the greatest source of literary knowledge. And what better place to go than history? You learn about empires, about politics and cultures. You learn about wars and conquest. But most importantly you learn about the decisions and consequences of human behavior.
But what can history teach us as creative writers? Part of understanding the literary world is how to create characters. And how to draw plots. The best way to learn this is by examining the world how it is. And how it’s been. Most good writers have sought historical inspiration in their works: Dickens, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare, to name a few.
History is the story of human behavior. Understanding its complexity is part of the writing process. The best authors, fiction or non-fiction, are the ones who can offer the reader a sense of realism. And sprinkle in a colorful bit of drama and action.
History is filled with this. The drama you see is everywhere: in wars, family plots, political conspiracies, betrayals. You see tales of great heroes, great villains and, in most cases, those who fall between in the gray area. You see the motivations of power and corruption. And the transitions. Old cultures and societies are wiped away, often by force. New worlds and new technologies arise, many powered by the same corruption.
We see the darkest of human spirit. And the noblest, at times. The most memorable stories in literature are those with elements in history: 1984, with its reference to the Soviet Union; ANY Dickens novel with its biting social commentary on Victorian values; Tolstoy with his study of Russian wars and politics. And the list goes on. To study these elements is to gain a deeper insight into human affairs: why he have acted the way we have; the repercussions of our actions, and how our relationships with one another have shaped us over the course of time.
The richness of character you find in Julius Caesar, Henry VIII, William the Conqueror, Alexander Hamilton (still need to see the play), Lincoln, Napoleon, and Cleopatra, is enough to color the pages of any novel with genuine human texture. Sometimes history provides the greatest examples of characterization. We think of our heroes as Lincolns, Augusti, and Michelangelos. We think of our villains as Hitlers, Stalins, and Caligulas. These figures become the impetus for our methods of characterization. And so, as writers, we can’t help but imagine them when fleshing out the qualities of our characters (metaphorically). At least the best ones.
I’m going to end this post with a list of books that I would recommend to any curious reader wishing to learn more in depth about history. Here’s my top 10:
- The Norman Conquest-Marc Morris
- The Twelve Caesars-Suetonius
- The Origins of Political Order-Francis Fukuyama
- Political Order and Political Decay-Francis Fukuyama
- Guns, Germs, and Steel-Jared Diamond
- The Plantagenets-Dan Jones
- The Red Flag: A History of Communism-David Priestland
- A People’s History of the United States-Howard Zinn
- 1776-David McCullough
- The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire-Edward Gibbon