Portraying Real People in Historical Fiction

thumbnailrealpeopleby Anna Wahler

History is full of captivating men and women–without any character building required. But writing about human beings that really existed can come with a whole other slew of potential issues. Many writers have successfully integrated real men and women from history into creative works, and others have been criticized for this act. Currently, I haven’t attempted to write a work of fiction centered on a real historical figure, but it’s a concept that’s very interesting to me. Below are some thoughts on the art of pilfering real characters from the pages of history.
For the purpose of this post, I’m writing about fiction in which a historical person takes a leading role. Cases in which a fictional protagonist crosses paths with a well-known and real historical figure are a completely different subject.

How much do you want to depart from fact?

Authors don’t agree much on what makes a quality story about a real person: strictly adhering to facts, or embellishing with creative license. Two of my favorite stories that involve figures from history stand at opposite ends of this spectrum. Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus makes no mistake of the fact that it fictionalizes the lives of Mozart and Salieri in order to create a more dramatic story. On the other hand, HHhH (Himmlers Hirn Heisst Heydrich) by Laurent Binnet is often categorized as a novel, yet attempts to stick as closely as possible to the real details of what happened to Reinhart Heydrich and the two Czechoslovak parachutists who assassinated him.
Both HHhH and Amadeus have been well-received overall. This shows that there is no established “rule” on the use of incorporating real people into fiction. The choice comes down to what sort of story the author wants to tell, and why he or she is interested in the historical figure in question. Yet artistic license is not the same thing as slapping in a real person in name only, then adding in new material whenever it suits you. Amadeus is a thoroughly thought-out film that makes poignant statements about creativity, fame, and what constitutes genius. If you chose to depart from fact, it is well-worth giving serious thought and consideration as to why you are doing so.

Real People

How much is known about this historical figure?

Both well-known figures and obscure ones can equally pique our interest as writers, and both deserve equal attention in different ways.  People may pick up books on famous people because they already know a great deal about the person. In this case, in order to avoid a whole avalanche of negative reviews, the research needs to be on-point. Other people may have a basic knowledge of your historical character, and be interested in learning more. When it comes to readers like these, you run the risk of giving them false knowledge about a real human being that really lived, if your research is not done well.
If you choose to write about a more obscure figure, more readers will be forming their first impressions about your character from your work alone. They do not have a large cultural body of knowledge to compare it to. In both cases, it can be very valuable to include an author’s note stating where you diverge from fact, and why you chose to do so.

What role will the historical figure take in your novel?

Role and point of view have a huge impact on a story where the protagonist is not your own creation. Many writers have chosen to tell the story of a famous figure from the eyes of a less well-known, yet also real figure. The Mayakovsky Tapes by Robert Littel tells the story of Soviet writer Vladimir Mayakovsky from an outside point of view. Putting words in the mouth of famous people can be a daunting task, and opens your story up to a great deal of critical analysis.
By writing from an alternate point of view, you also give yourself the chance to give an outside perspective on whoever you are writing about. The Mayakovsky Tapes’ point of view allows the reader to see a complete picture of the protagonist that would come across totally differently if Mayakovsky were telling his own story.

Real People

Finally—be prepared for criticism. Lots of it.

Writing about real people can be a rewarding exercise in research and thinking from a radically different point of view. However, when you take on this sort of topic, people aren’t always going to be pleased. In choosing to write a work of fiction, rather than a biography, you have chosen to give made-up conversations, personality quirks, and thoughts to genuine individuals. This is what makes your book more fun to read than a textbook.
But there will always be people that don’t like what you’re doing. They will say that you’re departing too much from fact, that your character wouldn’t really do such and such, or say the words you made him say. It can be emotionally draining to know that you are opening yourself up to very personal criticism, but having the courage to tell a story you are drawn to in spite of this is an admirable thing.

Representing real people requires a level of research and care that is one level above writing fiction with your own characters. Novels about real individuals can generate interest in the lives of near-forgotten historical people, or give a fresh perspective on a man or woman that’s popular in our cultural consciousness. But that comes with the responsibility of knowing that you are playing around with someone’s life. Do your research. Think about how you imagine they would want to be remembered. It’s the least of what you owe them.

What do you think about real characters in historical fiction? Do you think novelists should leave this task up to biographers, or have stories about real people inspired you to learn more about an interesting historical figure?

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