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A Matter of Character.

By Colin Salt

Colin Salt is the author of The Smithtown Unit

Characterisation in alternate history fiction can take forms both familiar and seemingly bizarre. I’ll start with what most and almost all “mass market”, for lack of a better word, AH goes with. This is a combination of original characters and famous historical figures from the time period in question. Now, the latter are often implausible from a purist standpoint. It’s fine to argue that Figure X wouldn’t have even been born if a divergence happened a hundred years before his birth, or that he wouldn’t have risen to prominence even with a divergence closer to the setting’s present. But at the same time, it’s understandable to have something that the intended audience knows. Few people know who William Allen was, but a lot more people know who Abraham Lincoln was.

William Allen or Abraham Lincoln? You decide.

Picture courtesy Wikipedia.

Abraham Lincoln or William Allen? You decide.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This mixture, which can go in either direction depending on what the author wants, is not surprisingly similar to that of plain historical fiction. I could even argue that the differences between AH and straight up “H without the A” stories are often smaller than one might think, but that’s for another time.

So that’s how characterisation in basic traditionalist AH tends to go. The perfect example (and a well-done one at that) is the viewpoint duo of original character Nathan Caudell (yes, Turtledove says he got the name from an army list, but for all intents and purposes, it’s an original character) and big-name figure Robert E. Lee in Guns of the South. You get a top-bottom mixture that meant the author could look at varying situations without disrupting the narrative too much or making a ton of “characters as cameras,” who exist purely to show off the scene they’re in. It’s not perfect and the criticism of Lee being whitewashed is accurate, but in terms of narrative structure, it works.

A Big Name defender of Slavery.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I could go on with AH stories that have everything from first person to viewpoint hopping to stuff like The Years of Rice and Salt’s magical realist reincarnations. Or even original characters meant to evoke historical figures. But I think you get the idea. These are things that, to a “normal” person, make sense. But then there are the ones that don’t. What I like to call “Online Alternate History” is extremely insular and has a ton of elements that just don’t seem to make sense to people outside the community (or often inside it). And which characters are chosen is one of those things.

Online AH tends to not use original characters even at points so far after the divergence that you could have multiple generations of butterflied-in families. And while it does use prominent historical figures, it’s rare that you’d get a chain of them the way a soft AH published story would (ie, it’s still Lincoln, FDR, etc... despite massive changes). What does it use? For the most part, obscure historical figures from the time period – even if that’s long after the butterfly net broke.

My two theories as to why are video games and Wikipedia. Hearts of Iron 4 and its mods have basically become the bottom rung of the Internet alternate history fandom the way that Harry Turtledove was a generation ago. And those feature, say, human waves of increasingly obscure people alive in the 1960s in a game set in the 1960s, even if said game’s setting is that of an Axis victory with subsequent massive world change. So to deny that precedent would be wrong, in my opinion. A lot more AH fans (me among them) simply jumped straight in from the Internet without needing any indirect stepping stool. Which is where Wikipedia comes in. It’s become a lot easier to just get surface information on something than it is to get the detailed context. And names are the most obvious surface context. I call the phenomenon of simply looking around online and getting a few names of, say, people prominent in Connecticut in the 1970s and including them in a timeline: “wiki-plucking.”

A third possible reason is the online culture that has made a backlash against the old print clichés, but hasn’t really communicated why. Operation Sea Lion is bad and implausible, but mostly because the precedent has said it’s bad and implausible, not because of an understanding of how a jury-rigged sea invasion against a giant navy isn’t going to work. So no to Sealion, but yes to something that’s equally if not more out there. And no to having a line of world leaders exactly as historical, but yes to having a line of people who came in third or fourth in their party’s nomination elections with the occasional real life serial killer (I’m not joking) thrown in here and there.

Did someone say Sealion?

This is all subjective literary opinion, of course. But I think an approach to worldbuilding and setting creation that consists of basically throwing darts is going to make the story itself more artificial and less wondrous. I know it often does for me.

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Colin Salt is the author of The Smithtown Unit and Box Press, both published by SLP.


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