What If? Things to consider when writing Alternative History
The success of the Amazon show The Man in the High Castle, based on a book of the same name, is the latest in a long line of examples of great alternative history. Have you ever wondered ‘what if..?’ If so, you’ve thought of a plot yourself.
Want to write your own alt. history short story or even have a crack at a novel (for NaNoWriMo, for instance)? Here are a few tips.
Point of Divergence
This is the most important thing. You want ONE of these to begin with. Some stories have a couple or more, but ideally you want to confuse your audience as little as possible. Some of the more established ones include:
- Hitler hands power over the army to a more competent general in 1935: the Nazis win WWII
- Electricity was discovered 100 years early
- The French Revolution never happened
- A famous historical person didn’t die when they actually did
This is, effectively, your ‘what if’ question. For example, I’m running with ‘What if Prince Arthur [son of Henry VII and older brother of Henry VIII of England] didn’t die in 1501’.
You can set your story AT the point of divergence if you want, but it is more popular to set it some time later. This gives your reader a chance to see how the world has developed. In my case, the story begins twenty-five years after he recovers from his illness, in 1526.
I wanted to follow the story of his life and his family, so my setting is the English court. You could follow a series of characters all around your alternative world, or pick on one person close or far away from the change.
It is completely possible to set an alternative history story in what is currently the present. You just have to think of how life would be changed by your nudge in time. Your imagination is the only limit.
If you have only one point of divergence, you must assume that anything not related to the change will remain much the same. In my example, Arthur not dying in 1501 means he remains married to Katherine of Aragon (changed), his brother Henry enters the church as planned (changed) but his mother and father still die (in 1503 and 1509, respectively). This of course means that Arthur is King of England, Katherine is still Queen of England and Henry VIII isn’t going to happen… at least not yet.
It’s pretty easy to start the obvious changes. If a major historical figure dies early, policies they pursued, inventions they created or religions they founded simply don’t happen unless someone else has the same idea. If they die late, they can keep making policies and inventing things and developing theories. Would they have come across a detail years later that might have changed everything they believed in?
The smaller stuff can be harder. What happens to Henry, Duke of York when he enters the Church? A rich man with powerful relations in the Catholic Church would quickly rise high… I make Henry a Cardinal. This puts him in all sorts of interesting historical places he wouldn’t have been like the Conclaves following the deaths of Pope Leo X and Pope Adrian VI.
You also have to guess at things that there is no logic or formula to work by. Katherine of Aragon is known to history as he dowdy old woman who failed to produce a proper heir for Henry and was disgraced when he said she had been married to his brother. But if we imagine that the fault for the lack of strong, healthy children is Henry’s then Katherine could have had many heirs for Arthur. Or not. That’s completely up to you.
And what happens to characters who are known to us for things they couldn’t possibly do? Anne Boleyn, famously sweeping the heart of Henry VIII away from the woman he’s… not married to… hmn… well, I guess Anne is going down in alt. history as being the mistress of the cardinal instead.
You have the power to change anything, which can create any sequence of events. But for a really good alternative history, you need to be able to explain why Julius Caesar not dying in 44BC means the Roman Empire is still going strong in 2016. It’s no good just to say ‘because’. And if your point of divergence is Henry, Duke of York murdering Arthur, you really need to explain how this means the Austro-Hungarian Empire made it to the Moon in 1943.
That’s just one of many lazy mistakes you can make. Another is to give one person or nation a ridiculous amount of power with no conceivable reason. King Arthur lives another forty years and he could, realistically, win wars against the usual English enemies of Scotland, France and Spain and theoretically take more land for the future United Kingdom. But he would not be able to take all of the Americas, Australia and Antarctica.
‘Realistic’ map if Nazis win WW2 (see full map)
‘Unrealistic’ map if Nazis win WW2 (see full map)
Not Into Writing?
You don’t need to enjoy writing to explore alternative histories. You could just amuse yourself by drawing the alternative timeline. Or draw a picture of what the world would look like if Ancient Greek religion was still going strong in the early 19th century. Alter a map of the world to reflect the rise and fall of your empires. What’s the national anthem of the Greater Welsh Protectorate of Wessex? What fashions are prevalent in a world where Qing Dynasty emperors expanded and conquered as far as Finland? And if Arthur and Katherine have ten healthy children, who do they marry?