Friday, June 24, 2016

The Fact in the Fiction: Historical People as Characters

It all started when I did my son's homework.  Hang on, let me explain! His job was to pick a famous leader from his world history class and write a one page paper listing this person's biographical info and the strongest arguments to be made about the person's leadership. Then, my son would bring his arguments to class and battle it out 'Deadliest Warrior' style against another student's leader.

To help our son prep, my husband and I each took a person from the list and completed the assignment so we could have a family battle letting our son practice his offense and defense. I chose Hadrian, my husband picked Constantine, and our son picked Alexander the Great.

I wish there had been a fly on the wall with a microphone or video camera to witness our battle and record it for posterity. We sounded like geniuses and I was really proud of my son's grasp of world history.

Well, this led me to think about taking my research and using it for a short story about Hadrian's visit to Great Britain and the creation of Lady Britannia.

One fact I learned about Hadrian was his efforts to bring back what he considered classical Greek ideals. Can you think of another time in more recent history when Greek ideals were brought back? The Renaissance.

Maybe all this was on my mind when I wrote a piece of flash fiction based on a prompt from a song lyric:

"You made a rebel of a careless man's careful daughter." ~Taylor Swift

He was exotic. Beautiful. The colors of his body, dark skin, black hair, bright blue eyes, were a beacon. From the dais I stared across the ballroom before I could remember the company I kept. Next to me, father enjoyed his imported wine and the attention of a courtesan. I should have stayed put, but when he looked at me, caught my stare, and put a finger to his lips as if he would keep my imprudence a secret, I knew I had to find a way to him. To find out who this stranger was.

To be honest, I've been reading a lot of romances lately and I was going for a French ballroomy feel. I liked this piece and thought it could be the start of a larger story. Now, I've read enough historical fiction to have a general gist of courtly rules and such, but not enough to craft a whole setting and characters, so I set out to find out more--starting with the roles of women during the Renaissance. It was so much fun (I know, what a nerd) that I sent out a Tweet about it.

Now I have lots of great facts, timelines, and interesting people in my notes. The big surprise is that I am completely changing my character. The love struck girl is gone, replaced by the illegitimate son of Henry II of France, who was born to a mistress just after Henry became the Dauphin. He'll still have a love interest, and I am sticking to a real historical timeline and using a real treaty as a basis for the story. This son is a character I am making up, but Henri II is not.

My question now is, how much liberty can I take with characterization of the real historical people?

I've dug around a bit today and found out that the answer really depends on what the purpose of the story is and when it takes place.

Here are a few guidelines I plan to take into consideration from now on:
  • Is your character based on a living person? There is a whole set of laws covering the use of a living person's life in your work. No matter how you fictionalize him or her, you leave yourself open to trouble. Ever hear of the book The Help? The author got caught up in a lawsuit by the real life version of her cook/nanny character.
  • How well known is your character? You may find yourself trapped by the fame of your character and without room for making him someone we want to read about--our concept of the person might be too rigid. Also, the things he did or the people he knew can't be as easily manipulated as a fully fictional character can be. The flip side is that if you pick someone well known, we already know your character's name and your audience will be more likely to pick up your story.
  • Use historical folks as backdrops instead. Because of the previous pitfalls, it is often easier to use real people as a sort of biological landmark, a fleshy setting, in your writing. Because readers have previous knowledge of a person and that person's time and place, use these to your advantage. Create a new character and let the historical people provide challenges or help. 
  • Has the person been dead a long time? If I use Hadrian as a character, I have a lot of leeway because he has been gone so long he is nearly a myth. There is a record of where he went and the people who were closest to him, but the real words and the 'truths' are long lost. Using Henri II is similar, yet his life occurred more recently. Therefore, he is well studied and I may have to be more carefully in my treatment of him. In both cases the defamation laws protect me.
  • What is the purpose of your writing? Are you like me? Simply interested in a time period and have a set of actions which could have happened to a certain historical person? Will your take on the character twist the readers' understanding of the real person? Are you using his or her life to make a statement of some sort? It is advised to use caution, because the reviews can be scathing.


    1. Good summary of the basics. I have yet to fictionalize a real historical person, but do have some ideas. Susan Wittig Albert does an excellent job with this in her books A Wilder Rose and Loving Eleanor. She wrote some thoughts on the subject this week also.

      1. Thanks for sharing the link and the book ideas. I'll check them out.