What scope should we have with ‘historical figures’ in our fictional writing?
O.k., I know the above title is blasting itself in the backside, but as an historical author myself, I am always aware of keeping the ‘real characters’ as authentic as possible within a fictional setting, but just how easy do you think this is?
Using characters from history intermingling them with fictional individuals can be like a terrible blind date if not careful, because nobody knows what conversations they did or didn’t have, what actions they may or may not have done, unless it was recorded, and just how reliable can that be? Research is key in trying to make sure my characters and the factual people interact in the ‘right way’ that suits the personality of the real people and facts written in history. If I can go a bit crazy and ‘make stuff up’ that may not ‘fit’ the historical narrative, because I can…should I?
Imagine a story full of woe and romance, treachery and murder…So let’s take, Henry VIII as a perfect example. We know from history that he had six wives, murdered two, divorced two, one died, the other out-lived him. We know he broke with the Catholic Church and started his own etc. Now, what if I began a narrative that he doubled as a circus clown and this is why he gained so much weight? He fell in love with a milkmaid who was actually a man in drag who was finally beheaded for divulging their secret liaisons?
Would that work for you? Of course not. Henry Tudor has a certain persona in history and we know a fair amount about him from the writings of all those within his court and history itself. BUT…The story is always written by the winner, the ones who can write, and the ones who may gain from keeping records…What of word of mouth?
For all we know, Henry VIII could have been a whining, pathetic wimp who was forced into killing two of his wives, who hated women (some may say this was true anyway?) and was a eunuch. Who ‘really’ knows?
Writer’s licence is all well and good, but surely the factual character has to have some traits of their historic selves and touch on something they ‘actually’ did during their lifetime so that the story feels ‘real’ to the reader? Whilst at the same time making sure the story doesn’t degenerate into a history lesson!
Within all my novels, I delve into history and find snippets of information about historical figures I can use within the book. In my first novel ‘Echoes’ the story is centred around the 15th century when Henry Tudor claimed the throne of England. In Freya’s Child, I look at the Vikings that actually settled on the Wirral in the 10th century, using a specific event as the setting. Between Worlds see us exploring the archaeological findings of the real ‘King Arthur’ and Where Rivers Meet, I delve into the world of Victorian copper mines in North Wales that I have visited on many occasions. Remaining in the Victorian era, I explore women’s rights in the 19th century in Diary of Margery Blake.
Now, having never met any of them, (seriously, I’m not that old!) I have to trust other authors, historians, researchers, original text of those who wrote about the various eras and hope that I capture at least their essence.
Some writers disagree. A few conversations with writers revealed they questioned my need to stick with the historical aspects as ‘real’, while twisting a fictional story around the events. “Why can’t you change history, it is after all a fictional story?”
True, yet I felt changing history, even in fiction was like I was disrespecting the true characters. Take good old Henry Tudor as an example. He came, he saw, he conquered on the Battlefield at Bosworth, which is a fact, killing the ‘nasty’ king Richard III in the process; but did he? We’ve all heard the propaganda that the Tudors made up about Richard in an attempt to make his name mud in the history books, and it worked. He is always depicted as a hunchbacked, nasty piece of work who murders the princes in the tower etc.
His character is pretty much dirt the world over, so how could I change it to fit my own fictional story? I couldn’t, but I refused to let Henry Tudor off the hook, because let’s be honest, they were all as bad as each other; I doubt any of them were honourable. So I have Henry doing something quite horrid which is pivotal to the story. I couldn’t change people’s perception of the Tudor king out-right as I doubted that it would be ‘believable’. It is also documented on who is ‘thought’ to have slain Richard III on the battlefield, now, there was a small window of opportunity to perhaps ‘change’ history because it can never be proven outright can it?
So just how far can we take our historical characters out of their skins to re-invent them as something completely different? Could we get away with making King Richard the Lion heart a transvestite perhaps? Or maybe someone closer to our time frame, like, Hitler, and make him a man who was brainwashed into doing his atrocities by aliens. Just how would our readers ingest such a modification?