From Maps to Martyrs: The Use of Fictional Geographies in Historical Fiction


Fictional geographies, or the creation of imaginary places within a story, have long been a staple in works of historical fiction. From meticulously drawn maps to intricate descriptions of landscapes, authors have used these fictional geographies to bring their narratives to life and transport readers into the world of the past. But beyond just enhancing the reading experience, the use of fictional geographies in historical fiction serves a deeper purpose – it allows for a more nuanced exploration of key themes and events in history.

One of the primary reasons authors employ fictional geographies in their historical fiction is to fill in the gaps and uncertainties of the past. In many historical events, there may be missing pieces of information or differing accounts from different sources. This is especially true for events that occurred centuries ago. By creating fictional places and populating them with characters and events, authors can provide a more complete and cohesive narrative. This not only makes the story more engaging for the reader, but also allows the author to delve into the complexities and intricacies of the time period in a way that might not be possible with purely factual information.

Take, for example, the popular novel “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. Set during World War II, the story follows two protagonists – a blind French girl and a German boy – as they navigate through the war-torn landscape of Europe. While the main events of the war are accurately portrayed, Doerr also creates a fictional town in France where much of the story takes place. This allows him to delve into the everyday life and struggles of the characters, providing a more comprehensive understanding of the impact of the war beyond just the battles and political motivations.

Another important aspect of using fictional geographies in historical fiction is the ability to explore themes and ideas that may not have a clear physical or geographical counterpart in the real world. This is particularly relevant when examining the lives and experiences of marginalized groups or individuals in history. By creating a fictional place, an author can imagine a different society or set of customs that may better reflect the perspectives and struggles of these characters. This enables the author to give a voice to those who may have been overlooked or silenced in historical records.

A great example of this is the novel “Beloved” by Toni Morrison. Set in the 19th century, the story centers around Sethe, a former slave who escaped to Ohio. While much of the novel is rooted in historical fact and the physical geography of the United States, Morrison also weaves in elements of magical realism and creates the fictional town of “Sweet Home” where Sethe and her fellow slaves were held. This allows her to explore the psychological and emotional toll of slavery on individuals in a way that a purely factual account may not capture.

In addition, the use of fictional geographies in historical fiction can also serve as a tool for social commentary. By creating a fictional world that is similar to our own, but with subtle differences, authors can comment on contemporary issues in a way that is not bound by the constraints of fact. This can be a powerful means of examining current social issues through a historical lens and providing a deeper understanding of their roots.

Overall, fictional geographies have played a significant role in shaping the landscape of historical fiction. By allowing authors to fill in the gaps, explore complex themes and provide social commentary, they have become an essential tool for crafting compelling and meaningful stories. By immersing readers in these fictional worlds, authors invite them to consider the past in a new light and gain a deeper understanding of historical events and their impact on individuals and society. From maps to martyrs, the use of fictional geographies continues to be a powerful device in bringing history to life.