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How to use historical figures in your novels

One of my followers on Twitter, Samantha Johnson, asked me “Do you have a post about basing characters loosely on historical figures? And how not to get trapped in the facts?” Well, I didn’t, but now I do! Thanks Samantha! (And by the way, you all should check out the highly amusing bio on her Twitter profile. How can you not like someone like that?)

Samantha goes on to clarify her question: “When I start researching historical figures to get a better sense of their personality, I get so caught up in the facts that I find it very difficult to add my own flair to my characters. It could be a fear of adding/subtracting a trait that ends up making another seem inconsistent or false. It could be a result of my love of history not wanting me to tamper with anything. The more sources and interpretations of historical figures I read, the harder it is for me to figure out how to fictionalize the traits in a way that fits.”

Those are good concerns to have. However, Samantha, I’m heartened to see that you are already doing the first thing right: Research.

Know what you’re talking about

Samantha already knows this, but seriously, make sure you know what you’re talking about. Do some research. How can you expect to use, say, Leonardo Loredan in your epic tale of love and politics in 16th century Venice, if you don’t actually know anything about the guy? I’ve heard writers say that research on their historical figures doesn’t matter all that much because the people they’re borrowing for their novels are too obscure, and nobody’s going to know the difference. Wrong.

Somebody will know the difference. This is a double problem for you. One, if that person does know something about Leonardo Loredan, and you didn’t do any research, chances are that person knows more than you and they will catch you screwing something up. This usually drops the reader’s view of the author by several notches, and messes up their enjoyment of the book. Two, someone who actually knows who Leonardo Loredan was is your ideal target reader. This is the person you want reading your book, loving it, and getting totally stoked because not only did you use a historical figure they knew about, but you got the details right. That’s a person who is going to go give you a five-star rating on Amazon, who is going to generate word-of-mouth sales for you, and so forth. Be smart. Be like Samantha and respect your readers (and your story, honestly) enough to do some research.

Let the research guide you

I’ve written two historicals. In both cases, I learned some utterly wild, crazy stuff I could never have dreamed up on my own. Sometimes, I honestly don’t know why everyone doesn’t just write historical novels, because actual history is so much weirder than anything I can invent, it saves you from coming up with all the fun, quirky little twists and details that make a historical novel come to life. In a certain sense—except for all the research—historicals are easier to write. Case in point: One of my novels is set on the Pony Express trail. In the research, I learned that the famous British explorer Sir Richard Burton travelled the length of the Pony Express trail, and inferred from excerpts of the journals he kept along the way that he was kind of a pompous ass. Not only that, he was on the trail during the specific few months in which my novel takes place. Perfect! He became the inspiration for a much-needed lighthearted chapter in what is otherwise a fairly gritty book. Would I ever have thought to toss a famous British explorer into my Wild West novel? Not a chance. But I found him in the research. Let the research guide you, because history really is stranger than fiction.

In doing the research, you will inevitably stumble upon quirky, fun people who existed on the sidelines of whatever your true research subject is. I wholeheartedly encourage writers to take advantage of those people when you find them. Steal them outright. They can often make wonderful minor character additions to a novel.

When it comes to adding your own flair to a historical figure, I think it’s always a balancing act. Samantha, I admire your dedication to historical accuracy, but as you point out, the interpretations we have of historical figures are often contradictory. What then? Well:

Consider how much we really know about the figure

Here’s a simple rule of thumb. The less we know about a historical figure—and the further back in time your novel is set—the more leeway you have. If I wanted to write a novel set in the 1970s hipster art scene and wanted Andy Warhol to play a part, I’d have to learn a heck of a lot about Warhol in order to make sure I got it right. I’d have to make sure he could have been in a certain art gallery on a certain date in 1973, that I capture his voice with some degree of fidelity, et cetera. Conversely, I once wrote a middle-grade adventure novel set in ancient Egypt, where one of the pharaohs plays a role. Now, that was a long time ago, and in terms of the question “what kind of a guy was Pharaoh Khafre?” the answer is “who the heck knows.” I needed him to be a sympathetic figure to the reader, so I made him be a nice guy. A thoughtful ruler who cared about his people. Accurate? Beats me. But since nobody knows one way or the other, you the writer are free to do whatever works for the story.

That last bit, Samantha, is where I think you should focus your concerns. What’s going to work for your story? I mean, if you read two biographies of Henry Ford and one says he loved horses, while the other one says he hated horses and that’s why he went big into automobiles (note: I’m totally making that up), you kind of have to pick one. When historians can’t agree on what somebody was like, why not pick the one that’s going to give you better opportunities for working with that person in your story?

Be smart about who you pick

In line with that, when you have a choice as to which historical figure you place into your book, all else being equal, pick the one we know less about. Maybe your novel is about a working-class woman in the late 1800s who has to make hard choices in order to join the suffragist movement, and your initial idea was that your protagonist would come under Susan B. Anthony’s wing. Fine, but does it have to be her? Why not Abby Kelly Foster, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, or any of the other early women’s rights advocates? Structrually, there’s no reason the story wouldn’t work with those women instead. You may want to think about balancing commercial appeal of having a big-name historical character in your book with the additional leeway you get from using lesser-known figures, but don’t box yourself into using the big-name person just because that’s what you thought of first.

Is what you’re doing with the figure plausible?

Plausibility, in every aspect of every novel, is where so many unpublished manuscripts go wrong. For the portrayal of historical figures in our novels, plausibility about what you have them doing is probably the one thing you can control that has the greatest power to make or break your book. In your Revolutionary War novel, if you’ve got George Washington walking among the half-frozen soldiers at Valley Forge and giving his own boots to a particularly pitiable soldier with freezing feet, yeah, ok. Readers will probably go with you on that. On the other hand, if that same soldier later gets shot—perhaps as a consequence of throwing himself in front of his general to take a bullet for the great leader—and then you have Washington whip out his pocket knife and perform emergency field surgery to remove the bullet and re-inflate the soldier’s collapsed lung, chances are you’ve gone out of bounds.

As a reader, I like to use a two-question litmus test for historical figure plausibility. Question one: Has the writer established that this figure could reasonably be present in the story at this time? Question two: Is the historical figure doing things that are in keeping with my understanding of that person?

If the reader can answer “yes” to both, you’re fine. Usually, this means sticking to normal, unremarkable actions, to things the person really did, and to stuff that’s similar to things the figure really did. That is, don’t turn George Washington into a field surgeon. Unless he was. I don’t know; I haven’t researched him. If you do need to have a historical figure do something really amazing or unexpected, the burden is on you to set it up well ahead of time in order to make it plausible to the reader. Example: Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, by Seth Grahame-Smith.

Getting back to Samantha’s concern about “what fits,” I think you have to trust yourself. When you have multiple options that are supported by your research, which work for your story, and which aren’t implausible, just trust yourself. In doing all that research, you’ll have formed your own idea about the historical figure. Who’s to say your interpretation of the person is any less valid than someone else’s? What do you think fits better? Your answer will be guided by who you are as a person, and all the rich history of your own life you bring into your writing. This is why, if you trust yourself to make the right call and honor that decision as you write, it’ll come out well on the page. It will fit because it came from the heart.

Other people will make different choices, but that’s ok. Their choices will fit for them too, because they will be writing a different story than you.

Finally, one last suggestion:

Read the masters

There are countless novels which make use of real historical figures, all in various levels of faithfulness to history. Find some that seem to hit about the same level of authenticity you’re going for, and read them. Your local librarians can be a great help to you there. But don’t just read them for the story. Read them like a forensic novelologist. Pick them apart to see what makes them work, and pay particular attention to the way the writer has portrayed the historical figures. In Stephen King’s epic On Writing, he says something along the lines of “good writers steal from everything they’ve ever read.” I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. None of us works in a vacuum, and it’s totally fair game to borrow tips and techniques from those who have noveled before you. Here are some of my favorites, just to get you started:

Lamb, by Christopher Moore. Moore has written several books with religious themes, but in Lamb he is at his finest. Lamb is a hilarious, irreverent, and yet at the same time deeply thoughtful and reverent imagined biography of Jesus, aptly subtitled “the Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.” If you’ve ever wondered what the Son of God did for fun when he was just a kid, this is the book for you. And if you haven’t, well, Moore did and that’s probably why he’s making more money with his writing than you or I are ever likely to. Either way, Lamb is an excellent example of an in-depth portrayal of a famous historical figure about whom everybody knows the same few things, but nobody really knows much about in terms of his day-to-day life.

The Eight, by Katherine Neville. Aside from being a cracking good adventure novel of astonishing breadth, The Eight is an example of touching lightly on a great many famous historical figures, spread across several continents and cultures. Neville certainly did not become stuck in the facts, yet she hews to the images we have of the famous figures of France (and most of Europe, really) to create believability. The Eight is a truly singular book, the magic of which Neville sadly failed to recapture in her sequel The Fire.

Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes. This book will likely never go out of print, no matter how long in the tooth it might now seem. But, if you’re looking for an example of middle-grade historicals with famous characters, look no further. The portrayal of the famous figures (Paul Revere and some other founding fathers) is exactly in keeping with our stereotypical, larger-than-life images of these people. It’s not nuanced, but I don’t mean that as a criticism; for middle-grade readers who are likely more interested in action and adventure than in subtle questions of the interplay between loyalty to the British Crown versus loyalty to higher moral principles, it’s not a bad way to go at all.

For many more examples—although by no means a complete list, check out the Index of Real People in Works of Fiction. Have your own favorite examples of historical figures in fiction? Share ‘em down in the comments. Just remember to keep the knife out of George’s hand.

August 15, 2010 05:35 UTC

Tags: character, historical figures, fact checking, plausibility

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