03 October, 2015

How To Avoid Maligning Historical Persons (Guest Post)

Today, a brilliant guest post by my friend Ulrik Kristiansen! Thank you, Ulrik!
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How To Avoid Maligning Historical Persons

Some thoughts for historical non-fiction authors and biographers ... and thank you very much to Kathryn for allowing me to share them!
This post is based on a discussion that grew out of a brilliant interview I did with Kathryn about what life lessons we might learn from Edward's tumultuous reign - today.
Among other things, Kathryn and I talked in the interview about the countless fiction books and - more disturbingly - the non-fiction books - that portray Edward as a 'bad gay man', or effeminate, incompetent, cruel, etc. - the whole unsavory package.
Some of these books which then describe Edward like this to show him as the total opposite of the valorous, virile, heterosexual Mortimer.
In other words: The worse you portray Edward the better Mortimer looks. And vice versa. Oldest trick in the book - you see it in Hollywood movies all the time. The villain has to do something terrible to the heroine's family, for example. Then we can 'forget' that it is equally terrible that the 'heroine' murders 200 of the villain's henchmen or whoever else gets in her way, to get at the villain.
I won't comment on the homophobia and worse that might permeate some of the abovementioned descriptions of Edward, based on more or less flimsy 'facts' from 700 years ago. (I haven't read all the books but I take Kathryn's word for it. The stuff I have read is quite enough.)
But after I had written the entire article about everything we talked about I felt could add more value to Kathryn's blog than to my own if I took the parts of the discussion that had to do with WHY we so often want to write (and read) these 'black and white' stories about historical people ... and made that into a whole new article.
I hope you will think the same, for here it is:

The power of black and white
What are the consequences of writing about people as being mostly 'good' or mostly 'bad'?
Well, nothing really - in the short term. You might even end up selling more books. But I can give at least three good reasons why you should not. They will be up in a moment but they will be there with a catch. They are not easy to deliver on. In fact, they can come off as down-right nasty challenges if you deal with historical material that is often incomplete and, more importantly, you have the urge to see people who lived long ago as a mirror image of yourself or people of today.
I would like to confess that I am not entirely innocent here. It's so deep in us, this way of telling stories about people - painting them as either heroes or villains, or other archetypes (or stereotypes if you will). If in doubt, just take a moment and listen to what you and others talk about at the kitchen table - how easily you slip into: 'He totally nails it at marketing' - 'She's a total failure as a politician' - 'Moslems are violent, it's in their religion' - 'People who believe in God are childish' - 'People who don't believe in God are materialistic and selfish' - etc. - etc.. The black and white-characterization is also a storytelling model reinforced by 90 per cent of all fiction in film, literature, etc. No wonder it is so difficult to get around when we try to write good historical non-fiction. If you are a long-time reader of Kathryn's blog, you will know, what I am talking about. Even serious academics fall into this trap. I do myself all the time.

I'm guilty, too
Just recently I worked on an illustration for a website about the Incas my girlfriend and I have wanted to make for a long time. I drew Cura Occlo, an Inca coya - or queen/empress, as she would be in Europa. She was one of the last Inca 'queens' and she suffered a grim fate, being captured and killed by the Spanish conquistadors while her husband led a rebellion against them.
When I drew the picture I could only think of drawing her as some sympathetic victim-like figure, robbed unfairly of her life and youth by what we would see as a criminal act today, and that's also what I felt compelled to use as an angle for the article that was to accompany the picture. Horrible as Cura Occlo's death was 500 years ago, I got ... second thoughts about my first angle in writing about her fate - after having put the drawing aside for awhile.
For example, she wasn't necessarily as innocent as I felt compelled to portray her as, on the first hunch. Her husband, Manco Inca, brutally killed and executed his enemies just like the Spaniards did. It was war. It was a different time. Did I really believe this Inca queen went along in her own little world, not knowing about or condoning at least some of all this brutality around her?
I doubt it, but I can never know for sure, of course ... The sources we have about this particular woman are scarce and to a large extent contradictory and biased, just like most other material from the Conquest of the Americas (written by Spaniards to justify it or by indigenous people later on to decry it).
Anyway, I'm sure you can see some similarities here ...
... if not, how about writing about a very spe-shul beautiful queen of 14th century England as if she is an innocent pure-hearted and largely passive victim of a cruel fop-gay husband and his chamberlain-lover?
Hypothetical example, of course ... :-)
The point is that all of the aforementioned are stories based on stereotype humans who are mostly either good or bad, victims or victimizers. No real humans. Story-humans.
And I find myself being drawn to these archetypical stories, too - all the time! Even if I know they are not really true.
I don't believe you can entirely escape this attraction to storytelling. Everyone certainly has an agenda. (Kathryn's agenda, fortunately, is primarily about destroying myths in order to give a more balanced picture of Edward.)
But I'm not even talking agenda here - I'm talking more about this deep, deep structure in our minds that's almost magnetic. The grooves in our minds that affect how we see the world.
We want so often to fit people into little boxes in certain shapes, don't we? It's how we make sense of the world, I will argue. A natural thing.
There's a lot of fancy psychology terms behind these observations, but suffice to say you will just have to follow me in this or go read a tabloid instead (or something equally substantial). If you are here, you are probably a fan of Kathryn's work, as I am, and so I think you will stay. I hope so.

3 suggestions for telling stories about real people
So ... are you planning on doing a historical bio yourself?
Do you have some past history person - Medieval or otherwise - you really fancy? (Or love to hate?).
Maybe you are already an accomplished author and follow Kathryn's blog just out of interest for the period or because you dig it when Kathryn slams some less-fortunate-author's work about Edward II (and well-deserved, too - I've seen no examples to the contrary)?
In that case, I'd like to give you a recipe on how you might avoid the worst story-traps in your bio about King X or Queen Y.
And the best of it all is, you don't even need to be afraid that this is going to cost you. You are going to be able to write an exciting non-fiction bio - even if you hold yourself to  standard that doesn't allow for black villainous kings or white-hearted queens.
In fact, I don't think you will have anything but benefits from this approach. But with each benefit also comes a challenge - some hard work. Sorry - but nothing is for free, especially not integrity.
And with that said, here are my suggestions for a good approach to writing historical bios:

1) Do it to make peace - not to pick a fight
Yes, this may sound a little new age psycho-babble-ish, but my assertion here is that you will realize it gives more peace inside to try to diminish how many 'enemies' or 'failures' you see amongst other people. In other words, the less you look for things that can piss you off about others and the more you try to understand why people act 'like idiots', the less frustrated you will be. It is easier to forgive, ignore or bear with someone you understand, although you don't agree with him or her.
You must then strive to push your biographical storytelling - in fiction and non-fiction - in the same direction of understanding, otherwise there will be a disconnect between the way you treat people you write about and the way you treat people in the real world. It's a bit like being a troll on Facebook - it's hard to maintain that attitude and rant against some people and then go out and have a harmonic relation with your family or your spouse.
Sooner or later that urge to kick whoever annoys you will shine through into the real world. You might as well deal with it and try to cultivate a harmonic view of everyone - past or present. You can't really separate these people. I know it's another cliché but if you, say, really have a problem with Edward being a homo (or whatever he was) then you're not going to do well in the real world when you meet people who are just that and who you might need to relate to more peacefully: A boss, a family member, a friend who comes out, whatever.

Okay, enough psycho-babble - but I hope you get my drift: Your choice of biographical subject and how you treat it to a large extent a reflection of how you feel about yourself and other people - who you love and who you loathe. You might as well try to iron these feelings out, both in your bio, and in real life - instead of choosing to magnify them through writing a book about someone you paint as a real idiot/villain/schlock/etc. Trust me, when you get as old as I sometimes feel, you don't want to waste too much time delving in negativity. Not even in what you write.

2) Do it to get new insights
High quality non-fiction is about discussing the complexity of reality in an exciting way (with notes so people can see how you put your argument together). It is NOT about reducing complexity of reality in the mistaken belief that that will always be more exciting.
You are never finished with upping your writing quality in this department. You can always go back and do more. Yes, of course there is a deadline now and then, but it's an ideal, okay? What it means in practice is that you treat biographical writing as a science, so you are open to someone down the line proving you wrong about something - with arguments. You don't struggle forever to maintain a viewpoint you spend so many hours arguing into a text 3 years ago, if it is no longer tenable.
Yes, I know there isn't an absolute yardstick for when something is true or not. But there is a warning light: When you find yourself continually defending the status quo of your view points. That means you are probably not doing a good enough job trying to unveil the reality about a person. You are becoming stuck in your own reality.

3) Do it to educate people for real
- and not just trying to force your viewpoint on them. If you are in doubt about whether or not you have given people a choice in deciding what to believe in your biography ... you probably haven't.

And that's my advice really. Short and sweet.
Then inevitably comes the question ... "how"?
What should you do then if you are writing a book about your favorite historical period and its participants, and there are just long periods when you don't know what happened in people's lives for sure, or why they did something for sure? Well, in the case of Edward it is seems tempting to tell a  very particular story, although you don't have the evidence to back it up. So what do you do to fill in the blanks? For that will inevitably veer your story in a certain direction. You will have to decide what your character did and why and if you want your audience to like him or not.
Alternatively, do you hold back and instead write a lot of times: "we don't really know" - ?
In other words: How do you avoid that your narrative becomes ... dull?
How about ...

Treating your bio-story as a mystery
If you treat the possible options of what has happened and why as a mystery - and as regards interpreting actions of your characters especially - then that can, I will argue, be just as gratifying as anything else. It can be just as exciting as choosing a straight-forward narrative.
Like choosing:
Option 1: "Why did Edward really neglect Isabella - if at all?"
vs.
Option 2: "Edward neglected Isabella because he was an egoistic, gay man."
Your reader is with option 1 presented with different possibilities and can make her own narrative - but no attempt from your side is made to force your own story on the material! You argue your case - you don't shove it down someone's throat!
Yes, make an argument into the story in your non-fiction book. That's what he wrote.
Don't make a badly disguised fiction story that you wish for - or hope will be more entertaining, because you can't think of alternatives.
There are always alternatives.
Why should the 'mystery story' be less exciting to your audience - unless you don't care about them but only about feeding them your own truth?
So try to tell the captivating story effectively - and maintain high degree of honesty - by discussing multiple options for what the protagonists and antagonists may have thought. Or what they may have felt. Or how they may have related to each other.

If you can't really back your speculations up - discuss them!
Then you can make an argument for your case but allow the reader to choose his or her favored conclusion based on the options you have lead forth.
Note: The basic neutrality of this kind of (very challenging) storytelling is not the same as giving equal treatment to all facts, trying to balance them out so to speak.
If, for example, Edward dabbled in modern pastimes such as rowing and sports and outdoor life, mingled with commoners, took a genuine interest in furthering knowledge and had a more or less open bisexuality that doesn't mean it was just as important as him going to war (and losing it). It also makes for a stiff and boring narrative, should you try to give equal room in pages to both, or anything in line with that model.  (Luckily, Kathryn hasn't done that and hers is an example to be emulated!)
But each case is different. Each topic is different. Your knowledge is different. The available data. You will have to weigh how much space to give each aspect of a story. As you do so you inevitably call attention to what can be interpreted as moral qualities (or lack thereof) in your main characters. As we have already discussed, modern audiences are hungry to fit people into certain preconceived frames - stories with clear cut heroes and villains. Most people like those better than ambiguity.

Walking the talk
I will end this guest post by giving a personal example of how I try to do exactly what I have been describing above, when I tell stories about historical persons. I'm not saying I am doing it perfectly, only that I am trying to be very much aware of what I am doing and of living up to this ideal.
So ... I recently finalized my latest live-talk about fascinating historical persons and this time I chose to talk about Christopher Columbus. It is a 1.5 hour talk for a broad audience. I gave it recently for school children. Next month I will be giving a slightly adjusted version for seniors.
In my last two talks - about Joan of Arc and Eleanor of Aquitaine respectively - I've struggled to find a compromise between the short time, keeping an exciting straightforward narrative free of too much ambiguity and still giving a balanced picture of who these persons really were (as far as we can ever know - both ladies lived a very long time ago!).
Anyway, did I give myself a challenge with Christopher Columbus! Up until about World War II that man was a hero to many, regular folks and scholars - but as we closed in on the end of the last millennium he has become quite the opposite to many: Accused of everything from starting slavery, to genocide to being a religious nut to just being a plain idiot for not being able to find India. Bottom line: It's very easy to fall into either the 'no, he was really a hero-story or the 'he was definitely a villain'-story.
I don't want to see Columbus as a 'villain', but he was hardly a 'hero' either - in modern terms. He was a man of his time who thought slavery and subjugation of 'lesser (non-Christian) peoples' was all right - at least to a degree.
Oh, Columbus tried to fiddle a little bit with the criteria, such as at one point entertaining the notion that only cannibals should be enslaved. In the end, though, Columbus' inner urge to become rich and famous - a 'someone' - coupled with his need to placate the local colonists and deliver on the promises made to the Spanish crown for bringing SOME value home from the new islands ... all of that made it extremely difficult to maintain any ideals, he may have had about treating at least some Indians with benevolence. And heads rolled. In the end, it was almost Columbus' own when he was 'fired' as administrator of Hispaniola and sent home in chains.
I thought I could try to draw attention away from Columbus' violent actions by :
- talking about how much worse every other colonist had been
- talking down the extent of the violence
- or trying to divert the discussion to his religiousness and avowed goal to get gold enough to finance a new crusade (a motivation both dubious in its 'purity' and not particularly sympathetic in our part of the world today anyway)
But then I thought ... why not just admit it?
Like: Columbus wasn't as bad as they came in 1492, but compared to 2015 he wasn't particularly likable either.
I hesitated, though - for how could I then make an audience of children with their parents - and later seniors - see something likable about Columbus? So they would want to listen to a story about him for 2 hours?
Yup, first task for any storyteller: Create a person people can like, even if just a little bit. Or the audience won't care what happens to him or her. And that goes for biographers, too, no matter how 'objective' they say they strive to be.
So (deep breath) ... I did it by connecting Columbus' quest to get rich and famous and the gradual slipping of ideals to the modern quest to become ... rich and famous.
Sure, the means were different and perhaps also the definition of 'rich and famous'. But isn't there something here we can recognize today - something very human that we can see in our own lives ... say, in our interest in 'the stars' (especially when their fall 'from grace' in the tabloids)?
Isn't there something here that we may not particularly like but we can at least recognize enough from our own lives? Something that can help us to understand Columbus a little bit for being a seeker of fame and fortune himself - in his own time?
So far - and judging from the response of my audiences - the answer is 'yes'.
And by approaching it this way, we are over the idiotic discussion about whether or not Columbus deserves to be a called a 'hero' still for his admittedly courageous exploration expeditions, or if he was somehow singlehandedly responsible for the genocide on the American Indians. It's not longer about black or white but about people - in all their colors and shades.
The people of the past may be distant mirrors of ourselves, like historian Barbara Tuchman wrote, also the title of her book about - guess what - the 14th century. The mirror image may be distorted because of the distance in time and living conditions and social values - but we can still recognize a part of ourselves in it.
Perhaps one day someone will write a history book about a certain failed English king called Edward of Caernarfon in which he is not just shown as an effeminate wife-hating politically tone-deaf ruler, but as a man with both vices and virtues that perhaps aren't so foreign to us today.
Wait ... someone already did! :-)

The article that came out of it for my Life Story Lessons site - StoryMover.Academy:
My own ultra-short kind of bio: My name is Ulrik Kristiansen and I am a blogger, speaker and coach who is very much in love with all things Medieval - including anything as regards 14th century England. If you are in Denmark you might want to invite me to tell you about Joan of Arc, Eleanor of Aquitaine or Christopher Columbus all of whom I have made some pretty nifty live-talks about - see astrea.dk.  And if you just want to read some of all my other stuff, there's always the personal blog: TheStorm Lamp
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That's it - thanks for reading and thanks for having me, Kathryn. Drop a comment below and tell us what you think!

10 comments:

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

Great read and a few really useful pieces of advice. I especailly agree with 'not everything is black and white' and the necessity of providing new insights into your writing. Thank you Kathryn and Ulrik.

Ulrik said...

Thank you very much, Kasia. I was very close to using my talk about Eleanor of Aquitaine as an example of my own attempts to live up to my ideals, but chose the old Admiral instead since it was a more recent experience.

But as you know, Eleanor is often described as 'the queen of troubadours' and 'courtly love' while in fact there is very litte evidence that she did anything beyond the normal royal sponsorship of some skilled troubadours at the time. Certainly nothing to warrant all the romantic notions about Eleanor's personality which have since been attached to it.

It appears more likely from my reading that she was in fact more like, well, a 'modern career woman on speed' and paying a high price for it, too - especially when King Henry put her in prison after the failed rebellion of 1173. Determined, arrogant, sometimes ruthless - and not really that 'romantic' for most of her life. But that could be a story that a modern audience should be able to see themselves in, too. However, the 'queen of the troubadours' is a very powerful story ...

As for the stories, black and white, told about one of her oldest sons, a certain Young King, I'm sure you know how they often fall into stereotypes as well! :-)

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

Yes, I do know, Ulrik :-) Warmest regards and thank you again for the fascinating read.

Christopher Johnson said...

It's nearly always a mistake to judge someone out of the context of their epoch.

Anerje said...

Interesting post Ulrik!

Ulrik said...

Thanks Anerje and Kasia again! :-)

Christopher - I doubt it is possible to quantify how much historical people are judged out of context of their epoch, and it is definitely not an exact science to measure that ... but from all the historical bios I've read so far I do get the impression that it takes near superhuman qualities, even for trained academics to try to adhere to an ideal of judging people in the context of their times all the way through and give them a 'fair hearing' so to speak.

But as said, it is an extremely difficult question to tackle because there is no absolute yardstick to use to know if you have tackled it 'correctly'. The problem always arises, I feel, when people don't even bother to discuss their assessments of some person and his or her motivation. That's when they become judgements.

Christopher Johnson said...

Well stated, Ulrik. Though the king has greater impact than the blacksmith, we tend to isolate the individual and ignore the many-handed machinery and unintended consequences surrounding and influencing events.


This is my problem with the Joseph Campbell "journey of the hero" theories which have had such a strong impact on popular fiction and movies (particularly Hollywood products). Heroes and villains are always useful to the regime in power.


As for Columbus, possibly more indigenous North Americans died from a communicable disease, contracted from initial contact and spread from tribe to tribe and region to region, without ever seeing a European, then died from slavery or military acts.

Would Columbus have thought this was a lucky break saving the expense of expeditionary armies or an unintended consequence requiring the importation of slaves from Africa? Would he have been abhorred if he could have known the ultimate toll?

Historians can try to be fair judges but no one us are free of the prejudices and pressures of our epoch.

Jerry Bennett said...

Hello Ulrik,

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post, and will certainly revisit it in the future, but it does raise one big question in my mind. If you are going to treat your bio-story as a mystery and raise multiple options, when does your book cease to be history and edge over into the world of historical fiction? (This has been a major topic recently on one of the "Goodreads" historical fiction discussion groups.)

As an aspiring novelist, I sometimes read a non-fiction historical book and think, "Hang on Mister Historian - that's you making an assumption. That's what I'm supposed to do, not you." In non-fiction you could arguably get away with making those assumptions by not having a specific point of view, although many historians do make value judgements about their subjects and the people with whom their subjects had to interact. Good fiction is almost always told from someone's point of view, which can affect how characters are portrayed. The power of fiction is that you can write in a character who does give an opposing viewpoint, and that can be a good way of "telling a captivating story effectively while maintaining a high degree of honesty" to use your own words.

It requires a lot of "reading between the lines of history" to get that balance right. Edward is not my main character, although his actions - or sometimes lack of them - have a strong bearing on the story line. "Why did Edward really neglect Isabella - if at all" can become a discussion point between characters in a novel, possibly better than in a conventional piece of non-fiction. Just so long as the characters in the fictional account stick reasonably closely to what is known in history and do not become too fanciful or outrageous.

At present I am trying to discover as much as possible about the plot against Robert Bruce in 1320. Was there some sort of English involvement in that episode, possibly involving Henry Beaumont, claimant to the earldom of Buchan and leadership of the Comyn party? Did his brother Louis, the bishop of Durham, become involved? It would not surprise me if they were implicated. You can put that into a history, but I think it reads better as fiction. Is it too outrageous? I don't think so, but I remain open to persuasion otherwise.

It does require me, as a novelist, to build a character carefully and to try to make judgements on them that are reasonably well balanced (I hope). In terms of Edward's sexuality for example, my belief is that he was "straight" and deeply in love with Isabella. I have written that into a novel in the form of a conversation between the earl of Pembroke and Andrew Harclay. Why they hit a breakdown in their marriage is something I do not yet fully understand, nor why Isabella came to distrust Hugh Despenser. When I get to that point I will need to be very careful in how I handle it, but I would hope to do it as well as any historian while using the genre of fiction to make it more realistic for the casual reader.

I agree with both you and Kathryn that there is too much stereotyping of characters, and that it crosses the fiction/non-fiction boundary. In taking the fictional route to telling the story of the years between Bannockburn and Crecy, I hope to create a more balanced and more human view of those characters, often involving fictional characters as well. So I hope I have given, or will be giving, a decent balance to Edward, Isabella, both Hugh Despensers, Pembroke, Lancaster, Roger Mortimer, and the Scots, Robert Bruce, James Douglas and the earl of Moray (amongst many others). What I am really struggling with at present is to find some redeeming feature for Louis Beaumont, and that's one hell of a challenge.

Ulrik said...

Good points, Christopher! There is of course a limit to how much complexity we can draw in, even in academic treatises for reasons of accessibility but also because of the limited knowledge of events 700 years ago.

So the main thing for me is when doing historical talks or non-fiction is to try to discuss the determinants as much as possible, whilst admitting that there can be no absolute conclusions and definitely not about the determinant's of people's behavior - even if we think we know what they did. This is a subject of psychology, philosophy, religion even as well as historical science and therefore you can only do so much especially within the limited confines of a book, a live-talk or even a life time :-).

The problem however arises if a storyteller of non-fiction like myself just slips into the 'hero's journey', or an equivalent model, without looking back. That is the domain of fiction - however much we don't like certain fiction books about Ed, Columbus or others. But fiction is fiction.

As to your last comment, I think even if Columbus somehow could know or foresee the genocide-by-disease scenario he was so deeply religious and, as everyone else, had a very limited (compared to 2015) understanding of what germs were. So like Las Casas he would probably have said it was "God's will" - whatever happened to the Indians that appeared to be just death from sudden illness. He wouldn't necessarily be able to connect it with the coming of t Europeans to the New World.

Ulrik said...

Jerry, thanks for your long and thoughtful comment - and best of luck with your fiction. Sounds very exciting, all of your ideas. Do you have a blog, Facebook page etc. where I can keep an eye out for it?

Anyway, for me using the words "mystery" is just a storytelling model to make the communication of non-fiction exciting.

It is *not* the same as a fictional genre, although there certainly aren't watertight shudders between the two terms!

Even so, what I'm talking about as an ideal in non-fiction is discussion about determinants of events, in third person, with all your cards on the table, like:

"We know King John inherited a problematic economy from his brother Richard, but was that the real cause of John's failure as an army leader - that he lacked the resources to fight? In the following we will have a look at the economic development in Normandy and England 1199-1214, what we know of it, and the major battles and consider the various factors ... "


Okay, that sounds like something out of my university thesis about agricultural policy in the EU LOL - but it *could* still be an exciting read if paired with some 'break chapters' with a little vivid imagery of how the battlefield must have looked or speculation (made clear as such) about what the combatants might have been thinking or feeling. Throw in a couple of quotes and you have a good narrative with mystery/problem-solving as a driving force to keep a popular audience engaged, esp. if we're doing a live-talk or a documentary for Discovery where you can't expect the audience to hold many degrees anyway.

Now, if you're doing a more traditional biography there's a scale on how dry and detailed it can become and how much you can break with any concern for a good narrative flow - some driver of the storytelling.

In one end of the scale you have the major, specialized academic works published by university presses with half a page of footnotes for each page of text. You also to some extent have the more 'nerdy' books published in ordinary stores, like Ian Mortimer's book in which we follow Henry V every day in the year 1415 to get a better sense of 'what really happened' before and after Agincourt.

In the other end of the scale you have the very light reads intended for an audience that may not have more than high school or similar but who are avid readers of certain genres that interests them. You would have to make do with maybe no more than 300 pages and focus more on the story and the colorful persons, but you can still do that without choosing, say, a stereotypical heroes journey-model or a hero/villain-model for your story. Such readers especially even if they don't have a university degree aren't stupid (!) and they love to discuss their favorite topic anyway, so give them that discussion.

Unless of course you are indeed writing for your very own tribe who is convinced that, say, Richard III was such and such (hero or villain - take your pick) and you basically just want to rehash the arguments for the only interpretation of events that can lead to such a conclusion.

And yes, all of the above is subject to discussion, too. It is my humble opinion of the choices available when doing historical non-fiction.

As for fiction - you are really free to do as you want, but I applaud you for being so attentive to different interpretations of events, saying you want to use different characters' viewpoints to underline uncertainties and not just, as I read it, give one telling of events from an omniscient author's POV. That's really demanding - but also deeply rewarding.

I like to do the same when I run role-playing games and the players meet non-player characters who tell them of important events that move the story but have wildly different interpretations of what happened. It is driving the players nuts ever so often LOL.

But it is truly a much more satisfactory way for me of handling reality - even in a fictional game. :-)