A Word About Historical Fiction

In working out the story of “Centurion,” I was careful about historical things such as dates and places and battles. But where I could, I took creative liberties in telling the story.

This is an important distinction to make. A writer of historical fiction is not a documentarian; he is a dramatist. He is telling a story not so much to inform as to inspire.

Case in point . . .

I recently watched the film, “Sound of Music,” this time in the 40th Anniversary Edition, which included a number of special features about the story that inspired the film. The basic historical points between the true story and the film pretty much coincided with each other.

There really was a Baron Von Trapp who had lost his wife and had a bevy of children who were suddenly without a mother. The setting was Austria before World War II. Maria was at the abbey, was fun-loving and full of energy, and she was very much a problem while she stayed there. The Baron did refuse a commission in the German army. The Baron did marry Maria. The family did sing together publicly. And they finally all did escape the tyranny of German occupation.

Those were the historical facts.

But . . .

Maria was not a governess; she was a tutor. And not for the entire family, just for one of the girls who was sick. The Baron wasn’t a stern disciplinarian but rather a kind and gentle man. By the time Maria came, the Baron had lost all his wealth through a bank failure during the Great Depression, and the house was filled with renters to bring in enough money to maintain the place. The family sang for money to make ends meet. He did, in fact, fall in love with Maria, but Maria didn’t love him, at least at the time they got married. She did, however, love the children. And finally, they did escape German occupation but not over the mountains by cover of night but rather on a train without any drama to their departure.

So . . .

Which would you rather pay money to watch on a big screen? A film that documents the facts of the story or one that dramatizes it?

And, can you imagine the story without the romance? No flush of romantic feelings. No drama as to whether the Baron would marry the Baroness or Maria. No tension between the two women. No kiss in the gazebo. No wedding. 

Neither can I.

Now, to my story . . .

Here is the centurion’s statement of faith from the biblical record.

And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him ,saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” (Mark 15:37-39)

The figure of the centurion who oversaw the crucifixion is a historical figure. But he is also shrouded in mystery. Who was he? How much did he know about Jesus before that fateful Friday? What happened to him after that day?

The biblical record is silent. We know nothing of his past or his future. We know him only for a moment. And only from that one line of dialogue.

The rest is speculation.

Which is the writer’s craft.

If he was changed by what he saw that day, it seemed likely he would have sought out someone who knew Jesus in order to find out more about him. It also seemed likely that he would have sought out one of his followers. But which one? Only one of Jesus’ disciples was there that day—John. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was also there. Along with several women.

So I started there, with those two, thinking through the casting choice that would have resulted in the most compelling story.

Here is the process I went through to make that decision.

I didn’t think the centurion would have sought out John. He, along with the other disciples, would have been careful to keep a low profile for fear they would be persecuted next. Jesus’ mother would have been in such a state of grief I felt it unlikely for the centurion to pursue her. And, it’s likely John would have protected her from any such pursuit, especially by a Roman soldier. So, that leaves the other women that were there that day.

The others we know nothing about. Except for Mary Magdalene. In fact, we know more about her than we do about the centurion. But we know little about her after the resurrection.

So basically I felt I had three options. John. Jesus’ mother. Or Mary Magdalene.

Which of them would have been the most likely choice? I asked myself. And which of them would be most likely to tell the most compelling story?

“What if” is the starting point for storytelling. So I asked myself, What if the centurion had chosen John to pursue? Where would that have led? And would it have been the best relationship to carry the most compelling story? It didn’t seem to me to be the best choice, particularly since John would have been preoccupied with caring for Jesus’ mother. Jesus’ mother didn’t seem the best choice, either, at least from a dramatic perspective.

That left Mary Magdalene. She had an intriguing past, she had perhaps the closest relationship to Jesus outside of John and his mother, and (this was the main reason) she offered an opportunity for a romance to develop in the story.

Legends surrounded her future, where she went and what she did. Some say that toward the end of her life she holed up in a cave in the south of France and led a reclusive life. Others say she worked in Ephesus with John. Still others speculate that she eventually left Jerusalem and worked in the network of house churches in Rome with Peter.

The biblical record, however, is silent. Except for this shred of evidence, however slight. At the end of his letter to the Romans, Paul greets those serving there that he has had some prior contact with. He says: “Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life . . . . Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you” . . . . (16:3-6).

Putting Mary in Rome created a context for conflict, which is the source of drama. It also seemed likely she might end up there with the centurion years later. What happened to their relationship between between Jerusalem and Rome became the dramatic center of the story.

And so, for all those reason, she was my choice.




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