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Making real people work for you

Valdemar_Atterdag_brandskattar_Visby_(1882)I write Historical Fiction. While my protagonists are entirely fictional, they now and then have to interact with “real” people – people who’ve existed, lived and died for real. This can be something of a bummer – especially when your perfectly crafted timeline suddenly crashes headlong into the wall of historical facts. That conversation your protagonist was to have with the wife of the Earl of Lancaster can no longer happen, seeing as the lady died some months before the planned meeting. (Shoot! How inconsiderate of her…) The touching scene in which the king and his wife are reconciled must be scrapped – the king would no more reconcile with his wife than he would have a crocodile in his bed (which would not only be very weird, but also anachronistic, as there were no crocodiles in England in the 14th century)
See? These real-life characters are hard to deal with. In actual fact, so are the invented characters, as all of a sudden they start developing opinions of their own and generally refuse to cooperate when they don’t agree with the overall plotline, but that is neither here nor there – not in this post.
At the same time, including real characters in the story adds a certain nerve. People can read the book, become intrigued and spend some time googling the real characters. Hopefully, they come away with the impression that the author has done a good job adhering to the overall facts. If not, there may be a problem, as readers of historical fiction tend to be sensitive to incorrect information. Not, I might add, that all readers of historical fiction KNOW the facts – but they are often quite convinced that they do, and if not they will google. Trust me – I’m a reader too.
The further back in history you write, the more leeway you have when utilizing the real-life characters. Also, I think it important to underline that Historical Fiction is precisely that: fiction. Even when writing about real historical people, we must keep in mind that we don’t know these shadowy ghosts from the past. What we have are fragments of their lives (at best), mentions in this roll or the other, acidic comments in one chronicler’s version of events, praise in another’s. So what any good historical fiction author does is that he/she constructs a picture – fleshes out the spare bones we have left to create a living, breathing character (in as much as characters can breathe, of course). Every such representation is incorrect in that it does not – cannot – be a fair representation of the person who lived and died all those years ago.
Henry_VIIThis is why we get such varied depictions of historical people. Authors may start with the same bare facts, but then they’ll add biases and personal values, which is why Henry Tudor may come across as the villain in one book, as an earnest man with a mission in another. Thing is, we have no idea what he was really like. Was he passionate in bed? Did he have the enervating habit of sucking his teeth as he thought? Did he take reading matter with him to the garderobe? Did he eat the veggies first? Did he now and then curse that meddlesome mother of his to hell and back? Or maybe he didn’t think her meddlesome at all? We simply don’t know. What we do know is that he won at Bosworth – and that, according to some, is down to pure luck, while others will argue for divine intervention.
Knights_TemplarTestament to the skill of the writer, is how well they succeed in influencing our opinions about those long dead people. Was William Marshal truly as gallant as Elizabeth Chadwick depicts him? I lean towards saying yes, and even if I were leaning towards saying no, I don’t think it would matter. This gentleman has been given the ultimate PR consultant in Ms Chadwick – her meticulous research coupled with her evident love for William have resulted in a representation that does breathe, does bleed.
Also, hands up those who knew anything at all about Llewellyn ap Iorwerth before reading Here be Dragons by Sharon Penman. No, I thought as much…Now Llewellyn may very well have been quite the thug, and there is something a tad bothersome about a man pushing forty wedding a fourteen-year-old, and yet Ms Penman – through research and admiration – has given us a hero, a man who sets the wellbeing of his people and his country before his own pride – no matter how much that hurts. To write a book in which Llewellyn is represented as being anything but a hero would be difficult. Too many readers would howl in protest…Yet again: we DON’T know if he had bad hair days, if he suffered from piles or refused to eat raspberries because they gave him a rash. But it doesn’t matter.
I guess the long and short of all this is that a historical fiction author must know his/her period, must be familiar with customs and foods, clothes and values. Of course, when writing about real people, the author needs to have read up on the facts that exist. But these are just the building blocks. A historical fiction author first and foremost wants to tell a story, and sometimes those real life characters have to be tweaked – a bit – so as to create the required tension. And so Henry Tudor is at times represented as diabolical, at others as an ambitious man who truly believes he deserves the English crown. A skilled author will have the reader accepting either or – for the sake of the story as such.
In the Shadow of the StormIn my recent release, In the Shadow of the Storm, I am writing about a turbulent time in English history. We’re in the 1320s, and on the one side we have Edward II and his beloved favourite Hugh Despenser, on the other side we have the disgruntled barons, led by Roger Mortimer. I suppose Hugh Despenser must have had some nice, cuddly personal traits. Some. Maybe. But I am writing this book strictly in the POV of people who are 100% loyal to Mortimer, and as Despenser hated Mortimer’s guts – a sentiment returned in full – Hugh Despenser comes across as a nasty, sadistic villain. I am sure he was – to those who opposed him and his king. But he was also more than that – to the king he served, to his wife and children. Of course he was.
“Him? Despenser is a sick, perverted bastard,” Adam de Guirande mutters. He glowers at me. “You should have allowed me to kill him.” Hmm. I can understand where my dear Adam is coming from, given what Despenser puts him through, but Despenser’s subsequent fate is a matter of historical record, and no matter how much I commiserate with Adam’s desire to avenge himself on dear Hugh, I cannot let this invented male protagonist of mine have his way. Nope. (And this argument has had Adam sulking in the corners of my mind for weeks. I finally cajoled him into returning to the party by promising him he could…Well, you’ll have to wait and see what happens in the next book.)
Likewise, a lot of the book centres round Roger Mortimer. We know a lot about Roger – detailed inventories of what he owned when he was attainted survive, as do mentions in rolls and legal documents. His overall biography – birth, marriage, children, political career, death – is there for us to study. We know very little about him as a person, though. He has left us no diary, no Youtube clips in which he shares his personal views. This for me as a novelist is manna from heaven: as long as I stick to the known facts, I can choose to depict Mortimer as it best suits me, and so in this first book I present you with a man of convictions, an honourable servant of the crown until something snaps in him. Is this a “true and fair” representation of the man? I don’t know – but then, neither does anyone else, seeing as those who had the privilege of chit-chatting with Roger Mortimer are so dead they’re not even dust in the air anymore.
As I said right at the beginning, I write fiction. I have the joy of constructing a plot that weaves its way through the tapestry of known history, my invented leads interacting freely with the people who populate the history books – as I see them. Sometimes, this causes me to tear at my hair while begging them all to cooperate so that we can get this pivotal scene right. At others, I sit back and stare at my computer screen before either bursting into tears (tragic scene) or grinning goofily (amusing scene). Sometimes, I have to get up and kiss my husband – but I don’t need to explain what sort of scenes drive that behavior, do I?
All in all, I consider myself lucky. My life is enriched by those vague shadows of the long ago, by the characters that populate my mind. Or maybe I am going crazy – if so an affliction I share with most of my fellow writers.

25 thoughts on “Making real people work for you”

  1. Little Angelic Rose

    Let’s face it – when we have such opposing views on real, living, breathing people who DO leave YouTube clips and are plastered all over the TV, is it any wonder there will be division among people over characters who are long dead?
    And let me tell you, having read Here Be Dragons and then studied the prince at the only Welsh History department in the world, in the heartlands of Wales, there is only one opinion of Llywelyn Fawr – utterly gorgeous and perfect in every way! Edward I however…..

  2. Delightful post. I’ve had a two-year journal and some biographical details of an obscure person who died a century ago, and it’s been a wonderful adventure recreating what I think her life might have been like. It’s complicated by the existence of descendants who might object to my depictions, but the next of kin, a great grandson in his seventies who knows nothing of his great grandparents, is just interested to see what I’ve turned up. Whew. 🙂

  3. In my WIP, which will eventually come out one of these days, I dropped a fictional character, with her family and servants, in the middle of a cast of real late 18th/early 19th century folks. I must have been crazy, but it’s working out for me… all that grad school research put to good use.

  4. Super post, Anna.
    I have to say how much I agree that the further one goes back in time, the easier it is to flesh out real people because of the paucity of fact. In the next couple of weeks, I have to create my spin on Reynaud de Forez, Archbishop of Lyon in the 1190’s. There is little or no information about him and I am quite simply over the moon! Turning handsprings!
    He is mine for the taking! (I hope)
    I’d also add that in my view, one of the most accomplished writers in bringing life to historical personages is Dorothy Dunnett. She brings a freshness and vivacity to people that might only have been names in recorded history and thus manages to electrify history in the process.

  5. Brilliant post. I’ve just been reading about how Oliver Cromwell’s personality changed over the centuries – of course people saw him differently depending on the political milieu of the time. It is hard to decide if he was a sinner or a saint. Or both! This is gold for the historical novelist because historical personages are really not the fixed people that readers imagine them to be. Sounds like you have free rein with Roger Mortimer! I agree with Prue about Dorothy Dunnett. Loved King Hereafter. By the way did you know Dunnett was also a painter, her paintings are beautiful.

    1. It is also a matter of perspective. The further away we are from events, the easier it is for us to view the participants dispassionately. As to Oliver Cromwell, I don’t think he would have been the most fun guy to sit around and talk to – he comes across as being too starched, too steeped in his own fiery brand of religious fervour. But I believe he was basically decent if something of a kill-joy. And no, I had no idea DD was also a painter.

    2. I knew that about Dorothy and so much more. Courtesy of the late M.m. Bennetts who knew her personally and also Ann swinfen, likewise. They have has some wonderful tales to tell of DD’s research mode in bringing her ‘real people’ to life.

  6. Love this, Anna. The truth is, not matter what you write in fiction, you will always, always have many reviews stating…”this can’t be proven historically.” Well, of course it can’t…that’s exacting why the book is in the fiction category… 🙂 Many, may thanks for a lovely post. Have a fun weekend.

  7. I very much like your approach to the genre – taking the know facts and fleshing out the bits in between. You’re absolutely right; historical fiction is just that – fiction. When we want the facts we read a history book.

  8. Excellent – and interesting – post, Anna. Writing about the Wars of the Roses has certainly given me a lot of tricky decisions to make about villains and heroes amongst the main royal and noble protagonists!

  9. Pingback: The wars that inspired Game of Thrones – Alex Gendler – [TED Ed] | mostly music

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