The Outlander Problem: AKA-Why Do We Read Historical Fiction?

Literary agent Jennie Goloboy recently posed an interesting question on Twitter:

“Can you write a successful novel in which the hero is supposed to stop an event that we know is going to happen, like the JFK assassination?”


It’s a good question, and she follows up by saying that every time she’s seen it, it doesn’t work.

And why not?

Well, because it’s bullshit. JFK does get assassinated… every time. And until an author can invent an ACTUAL time machine that makes all the readers of the book magically transport to an alternate universe so that when they put the book down, suddenly JFK never got assassinated—well, I guess if an author could do that, they’d probably be making a fortune working for the NSA by now.

I came out to Los Angeles in 1998 to be an actress, with a twinkle in my eye and $40,000 in the bank, saved by going to a much cheaper college than my parents had anticipated. (Bear with me, this story is going somewhere. I promise.) If I had bought a condo in West Hollywood in 1998 for $250,000, I probably could have sold it in 2007 for about half a million dollars.

Sometimes I lie awake in bed at night and count that imaginary money, like artificial snowflakes drifting by the window and melting as soon as they hit the perma-summer California soil. Isn’t that a beautiful image?

I didn’t buy that condo, by the way. I blew the money on rent, acting classes and headshots in which I desperately tried to look like the Jewish Bette Davis. Like this one:


Ah, youth.

Why am I talking about this? Well, because I review Outlander, of course. And the central conceit of Outlander, and in particular Dragonfly in Amber—the basis for the current second season of the Starz show—is that our protagonists Jamie and Claire are going to change history by preventing the Bonnie Prince Charles from invading Scotland and trying to reclaim the British throne.

Because Claire knows, just as we do—or would know if we were British or Scottish and had been taught this stuff in school like Claire was—that the revolution will be unsuccessful. Not only that, but by forcing the Scottish Highlander tribes to join the war effort, they will be effectively destroyed—almost all their forces wiped out at the fatal Battle of Culloden.

Claire knows this, just like I know a two-bedroom condo in West Hollywood will currently run you a cool million dollars. (Hold on, now I’m just thinking about that.)

Where was I?


Thanks, Sam. You always cheer me up.

And I guess that’s what I’m getting to now. Why do we read Outlander, or watch the TV show, when we know the plan is fucked? And it’s not like it’s a big secret that it’s fucked. Diana Gabaldon opens Dragonfly in Amber by telling us it didn’t work. And Ronald D. Moore and Co, in turn, have opened season two of Outlander by telling us, even more directly than Herself did, “Hey, folks, don’t get your hopes up. We didn’t actually invent a time machine and change the past.”

I mean, for God’s sakes, this is the first scene:

2016-04-26 10.23.07 2016-04-26 10.23.35


Cue the hankies.

So why? Why are we watching this show? Why did we read the book(s)? Why is anyone watching Stephen King’s 11/22/63 on Hulu? (Wait, is anyone watching 11/22/63 on Hulu? I cut out after the first episode, I have to admit. Something about James Franco’s face—I can’t put my finger on it.)

And I guess a follow-up question might be, Are as many people watching season two of Outlander as watched the first season? Because I’ve got to say—and don’t get me wrong, I’m loving season two—but there’s an innate drama in the first Outlander book and TV season that is somehow lacking in the sequels. And that drama, now that I’m trying to pinpoint it, comes in the form of possibility.

wedding nightIn season one, we’re talking about a fictional woman who goes to a fictional castle where she meets a fictional clan leader and his fictionally smoking hot nephew and fictionally marries him in one of the fictionally sexiest weddings in the history of fictional sex.

And I’m cool with that. Why? Because it could happen. None of these people actually existed, so what difference does it make if Claire changes the past?

But Dragonfly, AKA season two? Well, we’re a little stuck here, aren’t we? This plan isn’t going to work, and we know it. So why are we watching beautiful people parade around in fancy costumes—exquisite though they may be—if we know it will come to naught? Is it all just a charade, the way that 18th century Parisian noblesse was, well, a charade? Are we watching beautiful ghosts primping and posing in front of a mirror that is bound to crack?


Because now we know, don’t we? We know where this is going, and there’s nothing we can do but watch. Like the Greek myth of Cassandra, cursed by Apollo to see the future, but powerless to stop it. She is driven mad, and we know that the same thing will begin to happen to Claire as she realizes the truth: the past is inevitable.

Now time travel stories are, of course, nothing new. Let’s see, we’ve got HG Wells, Asimov’s The End of Eternity… Vonnegut took it on with Slaughterhouse-Five. The brilliant children’s novel by Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time. Authors throughout all of ACTUAL history have dipped their toes in that crystal-clear water, trying to step even further back in time, only to find what Claire and Jamie will now learn: It’s too late.

And yet… what if?

451Because in the end, that’s really what literature is, isn’t it? Whether it’s about a time portal to 1743, or an alternate future in which all books are burned at 451°, or a girl who stages her own disappearance to frame a cheating husband—books are just a large game of “What if?” And we know, of course, that when we put the book down, the game will be over.

There is no stone portal. There is no Jamie Fraser (sorry, ladies—I’ve looked. I really have). There may be some book burnings going on somewhere, but thank God we haven’t banned them all yet. And Amazing Amy never really staged her own death.

But what if they did?

What if Claire Beauchamp Fraser did exist, and she did try to change the past? What could we learn from her futile efforts? Could we prevent the next Battle of Culloden—the one that’s happening right now in Syria, for instance—if we only read enough books? If we only understood our own nature well enough to grow wiser, angrier, sadder? Could we care more about each other, about the people who aren’t here anymore to fight for, or the people who might be coming… just around the corner? Just inside the front cover of another book?

If I could go back in time, I would buy that condo. (Also, I wouldn’t have dated Brad. Sorry, Brad. Sorry/not sorry.) If Claire could go back in time, she would prevent the Battle of Culloden. And if Stephen King could go back in time, I guess he would prevent the assassination of JFK.

It won’t work. It never works. But if we stop imagining it, if we shut off our “What if,” then what else do we lose? And that, to me anyway, is when truth becomes scarier than fiction. What do you think?

Follow Rebecca Phelps on Twitter @DownWorldNovel or “like” us on Facebook at Novel2Screen for more thoughts on “Outlander” and other novel-to-screen adaptations.

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8 thoughts on “The Outlander Problem: AKA-Why Do We Read Historical Fiction?

  1. Perhaps this explains my issue with Tarantino’s Inglourious Bastards. As much as I want Hitler to burn to death in a theater, it didn’t happen. So, in the end I felt cheated.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree with you, but I also think that there is a place in our imagination where we can say “well, perhaps it did all happen. There are magical standing stones, and a 40’s woman did travel to 18th century Scotland and tried to stop the uprising. But it didn’t work, and here, written in this book, is her journey; what they did, how they struggled and ultimately what happened after that.” I am ok knowing that their plan is destined to fail, I am interested in the journey they take, how it impacts them, how it changes them and what they do next.


  3. Sometimes a story isn’t about the overall outcome of events, but more about how it affects the characters and changes them. That journey for me is always the most interesting one. Claire has been forever changed by Jaime. When Frank was delving into the history of his family she could barely be bothered to take note of what he was saying. It was boring to her. But now… now that she knows someone one and loves someone directly affected she is very much interested in history. She has been changed by the experience of time travel and of loving a man from the past, while being conflicted about a man that doesn’t exist yet. That is what makes Outlander interesting, not the actual events, but how those events shape the characters lives. So.. to me the fact that we already know the plan failed doesn’t bother me or make me less interested, in fact I am more interested to know where they went wrong and how, knowing the inevitable, ended up in a failing position at the Battle of Culloden. That journey is worth watching.


  4. Great post – very thought provoking! I wish I could talk to that agent and hear about all the ways people tried to save JFK that failed. I wonder if it could be interesting if the emphasis was on him being saved but some other tragic event happening as a result? But then, even as I write that, it falls flat. You’re no longer talking about MY universe if JFK lived. As the Doctor would say, that’s a fixed point in time that can’t be messed with. At least from a story teller’s perspective… 🙂


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