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28 May 2008

The Ethics of Historical Fiction


I recently guest blogged on Writers at Play about focus shifts between historical romance and historical fiction. As often happens, the follow-up discussion was as interesting as the blog itself. Janice asked a great question about the ethics of writing about real historical people:

Tracy, I have a question that has to do with writing fiction based around real historical events. I’ve seen books that use real people as characters in their fiction books, are there rules regarding how a real person can be used in a book? I’ve always been intrigued by how an author intertwines the real with the fiction, but was curious about liability issues and rights–particularly if a book became tremendously successful.

This is something I've been struggling with more and more of late, as I've been incorporating more real historical figures into my own books. As I said in response to Janet:

The people in my books are so far in the past that there aren’t any liability questions. But I do feel a lot of responsibility writing about real people. Obviously integrating them into a fictional plot, you’ll have them doing and saying things they didn’t really do. But I try to stick to things that they *could* plausibly have done. For instance, Josephine Bonaparte was known for her love affairs in the years before she married Napoleon and in the early years of their marriage. Part of the plot the third book in the Charles & Mélanie series involves a fictional character who was Josephine’s lover. Because she was known to have had a number of lovers, I felt okay adding a fictional one. But I wouldn’t feel comfortable inventing a fictional liaison for a real person who was never known to have had an affair.

Sticking to what a real person plausibly could have done becomes particularly difficult with mystery and espionage plots. I can imagine writing a book in which the Duke of Wellington was suspected of murder. I can't imagine writing a book in which Wellington actually committed murder. Or sold secrets to the French. Or any number of other things there is no historical knowledge of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, ever doing.

This weekend I brainstormed the fourth book in my Charles & Mélanie series with a friend who was visiting. We were dipping into history books and throwing out ideas about the Elsinore League, a secret society of powerful men I've invented for the series. One thing we discussed was which historical figures might believably be part of the Elsinore League. I wouldn't shy away from having a real historical figure as part of the Elsinore League, but it would have to be someone I felt might actually have been a member--had the League existed :-). I won't go into too many possible spoilers--and nothing's decided yet--but we decided Castlereagh and Metterich were probably "nos," and Talleyrand was a "possible."

And then even when you decide what it's fair to have a real historical figure do in your book, there's the whole conundrum of getting inside his or her head. I know my fictional characters inside out. I created them. I know or can invent every nuance of their past. It's very different to try to write from the perspective of a person I can only know across the years, through letters and journals and other people's accounts. I tend to try to write scenes involving real people from the pov of a fictional character. But sometimes, often after trying a draft of the scene, I realize it would be stronger from the historical character's pov (and ideally in an historical novel, the historical and fictional characters blend seamlessly together, so one doesn't realize where fact stops and fiction begins without doing researc). In my third, as yet unpublished, Charles & Mélanie book, I write from the pov of Hortense Bonaparte (who is an important character in the novel). Getting into her head wasn't as daunting as I feared. But I'm still in awe of writers like my fellow Hoyden Amanda who so believably get into the skin of real historical characters and tell an entire book from their perspective.

I'd love to get other people's takes on this. Writers, how do you feel about incorporating real historical characters in your books? Do you have a "code of conduct" for what you will or won't have a real person do in your fictional story? How do you find writing from the pov of a real person different from writing a fictional character? Amanda, and others who've written books focused on real people, what are the particular challenges and rewards? When your book is driven by real events, how free do you feel to add fictional scenes or episodes? Readers, do you like to see real historical characters in novels? Does it send you to history books for follow-up research? Does it bother you when a novel has a real person doing something that doesn't seem in character? Do you have favorite examples of fictional stories that incorporate real people and events?


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13 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

You asked for it, you got it, Tracy!

My "rule" for writing historical fiction which incorporates actual historical personages is to never violate their world or thier character. As you said, if a woman's reputation was historically stainless, don't give her a passel of lovers (or even one). And you can't change historical events, or fudge them, unless you are deliberately creating an alternate or parallel universe in your novel (such as the relatively recent Philip Roth book that had the fascists winning the U.S. Presidency and being sympathetic to Hitler).

Otherwise, e.g., Nelson can't survive Trafalgar. He can't remain physically intact, having never lost an arm or received major damage to one eye, or be six feet tall, because a novelist thinks readers won't find him sexy otherwise (even if Laurence Olivier played him so compellingly in That Hamilton Woman.)

But we're not talking about cinematic interpretations today.

Personally, I get excited when a novelist incorporates an actual historical personage into their book. For me it rounds out the world of the story and adds verisimilitude (as long as the writer sticks to "Amanda's Rules." A case in point of violation of those rules is The Other Boleyn Girl, which is an entertaining read, but historically inaccurate (in many big ways).

Another of "Amanda's Rules," however, is that if something could have happened, you can go to town with it! I read that Emma Hamilton may have danced on the table at the raucous banquests hosted by her lover Harry Fetherstonhaugh. So you can bet I added that scene in TOO GREAT A LADY. Because you're writing fiction, you can embellish, elaborate, and give your imagination free rein as long as you remain in the realm of the plausible. Or the actual. We know that Mary Robinson had a passionate affair with the young Prince of Wales (the future George IV). But we don't know exactly what happened in the boudoir. That's where the historical and the fiction should seamlessly blend.

In my historical fiction, my principal characters and several of the supporting cast, were real people and I try to get them as accurately drawn as possible, reading their letters or their poetry, etc., when those primary sources are available, to get the best possible sense of their personality, vocabulary, cadence, the way they organized their thoughts, the way their mind worked.

The "downside" comes when a real-life person is flawed to a degree that readers might not find them a sympathetic "character." My response to readers is "tough noogies: get over it." In addition to the traits that make them attractive (Nelson's bravery and love of duty and honor; Emma's generous heart) because they were real people, they acted like real people, not fictional characters who are always noble. Nelson was vain and ambitious. Emma Hamilton was often inconsiderate. They were both adulterers. Mary Robinson, a woman with abolitionist sensibilities, wrote pro-slavery speeches for her lover, Banastre Tarleton, to deliver in Parliament.

It's a challenge, but also a joy, to be able to put a fully rounded person like that on the page.

4:33 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I've often thought about this Tracy, particularly after a friend of mine, who recently passed, suggested that I write a historical mystery series with Harriette Wilson as the centerpiece. Because as he put it a courtesan would be able to ferret out information that others couldn't. Well that's the polite way that he put it.

I love real characters in historical fiction or romance because they anchor the fictional world. But as you said, they can't act out of character. I remember seeing a movie called Hoodlum that intimated that DA Thomas Dewey was on the take from Lucky Luciano, when Dewey was known for being incorruptible.

If a writer is going to move a battle or change the historical fact, they need to have a good reason (Susan Johnson is notorious for her footnotes explaining what she's changed). And most of the time there isn't one.

E.L. Doctorow did a masterful job of incorporating fictional characters with real historical characters in Ragtime. I always think about that while I'm writing.

Since my historical YA is set in 1895, I've tried to decide if I want to incorporate real historical figures particularly when my heroine ventures into New York society.

5:14 AM  
Blogger La Belle Americaine said...

I like including real people into my books, but my "rule" is to treat them with some form of "respect" as they were living, breathing, walking and talking human beings--no matter what information posterity has handed down to us.

Tacking my opinion to the dilemma Amanda addressed, regarding unsympathetic traits and/or actions, I weigh them: do their actions/behavior play a part in the narrative? IMO, since many novels don't address issues like slavery, racism, classism, politics, religion, etc in the narrative, drawing out every single facet of a historical figure's personality is unnecessary.

5:34 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for the fascinating comments, everyone! Amanda, I very much agree with "Amanda's rules." What I think is a challenge with real historical characters is that even if you stick scrupulously close to what they did, you can't know precisely what you were thinking. Getting inside their head and making them live and breathe as much as a character you've created out of your own imagination is to me to real challenge--and fun--of writing about real people. You do it beautifully!

Elizabeth, Harriette Wilson would be a fascinating character to write about in a mystery series! But you'd run into the same issues I do with having real people suspected of crimes and perhaps ending up as the guilty party. And you'd have to either discover a lot of real secrets for Harriette to uncover, or make up secrets for real people that they plausibly *could* have had, or have a lot of fictional characters with secrets. It would be an interesting juggling act--and a lot of fun to read! I'd vote for incorporating real people in your New York society scenes in your 1895 book--I think it helps the setting come to life.

La belle americaine, you bring up an interesting point. I think of treating real historical characters with respect in terms of not having them do things in my novel that I don't think they'd have done in real life. But I confess I don't think much about "protecting" them by not mentioning their less attractive traits. Not the kindest treatment perhaps :-). But even though we all make choices about what to include and what to leave out in creating an historical narrative, I tend to want to show the darker side of real historical characters, just as I do of historical eras.

8:30 AM  
Blogger Margaret Evans Porter said...

The male and female protagonists of my work in progress were historical figures. (Many of my previous works had historical persons in significant roles, but not to this extent.)

What's nice, in my opinion, is that this couple are obscure and virtually unknown in the present age but fairly prominent in their own, as aristocrats connected to royalty. They left visible traces upon the historical record.

I've long been fascinated by them, and building a novel around them has been a complete joy. Their most renowned descendent, a future duke, has been supportive. The existence of descendants, and what they might think, shouldn't constrain the author, whether the project is fictional or nonfiction. I've made it plain that I've done my research with due diligence, but this is in fact a novel, not a nonfic bio!
Which gives me a licence to "make stuff up."

I agree wholeheartedly with Amanda's rule. Within a framework of fact, there's still a wide latitude for pure invention. The writer is free to interpret the facts but, in my view, not to contradict them. That said, the speculative aspect of writing about real people is a challenge and a joy.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy, thanks for all the compliments! I think that you show the "darker side" of characters and the era itself so beautifully; and your plotting is always so skillful that it blows me away.

Frankly, and this is just my view and the way I depict my actual historical characters, I'm not interested in sanitizing any traits that some romance readers might find unpleasant. That's another distinction (and one I've blogged and blathered about a lot) in expectations between readers of historical romance and readers of historical fiction. If I'm writing about real people, and in my case telling their stories from their own POVs, then I want to include as many sides of that actual person as my research has been able to uuncover and my imagination has been able to supplement. For me (and I won't dare speak for the way other authors choose to work), if I am not drawing as authentic a picture as possible of a real historical figure, then why include him or her in my novel? Why not instead create an entirely fictional person who might have traits that are based on those shared by actual personages, and then have carte blanche to write whatever I want and make the character into anything I want?

Of course, a story told from an historical character's POV is bound to put them in the best possible light (in what we laughingly call "real life," Mary Robinson began to write her memoirs and discreetly leaves out the extramarital liaison with the Prince of Wales!!) But even then, in historical fiction the personality of the narrator will end up revealing itself (or should) so the reader gets the "warts and all" picture of them.

"Amanda's Rules" also include the challenge to the author to be authentic if you are choosing to write about real people. True, it can hamstring you if a real person actually did something or behaved in a certain way that doesn't fit with the story you want to tell as the writer. So it's up to the author to either find a plausible reason for why the character isn't behaving the way that historical research reveals them to be, or to rework the scene or event so that the actual behavior seamlessly fits into it.

8:45 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I think that is what is keeping me (at the moment) from writing the series. I have seen other series that have used Jane Austen and Brummell as detectives, as well as a series that had Lillie Langtry and Jennie Churchill involved in the mystery, so it can be done, but again, it would involve a great deal of careful research. Since Harriett had the dirt on so many people that she slept with, it does give me a bit of leeway.

I do plan on at least having Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell appear when they dine at Rector's.

8:46 AM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

My WIP is alternative history. In my prologue I kill a famous and influential man 25 years ahead of schedule (and before he had the least bit of fame or influence), and in Chapter One I jump ahead to the point where his absence would be noticeable even to someone who'd slept through their 11th-grade World History class. But even though I'm not tied to real events, I've got a lot of real people running around my manuscript, and I'm trying my best to make them recognizable within the altered circumstances of my world.

As for rules, I'm making them up as I go along. My protagonist is a real person, and I'm reading everything about him I can get my hands on to help me get his voice and mentality. It's definitely harder than writing a totally invented character. I've given him an invented best friend (that he meets and befriends in the course of my story) and am planning to give him an invented wife, partly because I want SOME people in the story whose actions and beliefs are wholly under my control!

That last part feels a little weird, letting my world's real and imaginary people interbreed, and I've so far avoided approaching my protagonist's real-life descendants for research help because I'm not sure how they'd feel about not existing in my universe! :-) But with the changes I've made in my world, he and his real-life wife just wouldn't be in a position to marry. I ended up deciding it would work better to invent a woman who'd give him the right combo of conflict and love for my story than to go combing through history looking for a different real woman and setting off a cascade effect of altered marriages. But it still feels weird, and I'm going to have to be careful not to make the invented wife a Mary Sue. (Or, at least, to make her a GOOD Mary Sue, more like Harriet Vane than something out of a 13-year-old girl's first attempt at fanfic!)

In general, I'm just researching my people as thoroughly as I can and not writing anything that I don't believe could've happened. It doesn't have to be the most likely outcome--if an unlikely outcome makes a better plot, I'll use it and do my best to justify it--but I figure if I can't make myself believe it, nobody else will, either!

9:53 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I'm loving this discussion! Margaret, your work in progress sounds fascinating. I love the idea of using real people who were involved with well known events and people but were not well known themselves. That's wonderful you can talk to their present day descendant!

Amanda, I'm with you on wanting to be "authentic" when writing about real people.

Elizabeth, I love the idea of Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russel appearing in your book!

Susan, I think alternate history presents it's own wonderful opportunities and challenges. I think the trick is to set up clear "rules" about what you're changing and when historically. If you veer off from real history after a certain event, then after that event you're free to write your own story, sticking to the real "back story" and who the characters would be as people. It sounds like you're managing the challenges really well!

11:59 AM  
Blogger Blythe Gifford said...

My last two books have included several real life characters, and I tried to be true to them. However, in historical hindsight, everyone can have a different interpretation of what a real person was like. I found myself becoming sympathetic, even to characters that history condemned.
My favorite was using Alice Perrers as the mother in THE HARLOT'S DAUGHTER. I ended up with a great deal of admiration and sympathy for this woman that most people hated.
In INNOCENCE UNVEILED, I also used several real characters. One of them, a bishop, had his name changed. He ends up being a rather evil character and my editor (British and quite - rightly - concerned about accuracy) worried about this until I could quote her some quite unsavory lines about his reputation.
It's a challenge, though, to stay true to history and still have a character walking around in a world you've created. That's what I was trying to convey with my lines about authentic vs. accurate.

Blythe

12:10 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

Has anyone read any of Eugenia Price's work? She focused on the pre-Civil War South, particularly coastal Georgia. She incorporated a TON of real people (Anne Couper Fraser's family, for example, are the main characters in her Georgia Trilogy) but often invents characters as well and works them into real people's lives (the fictional Brownings of the Savannah Quartet mix with the Mackays, grandparents to the man who became Mr. Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts...)

Anyway, the dear lady passed on in 1996, but I wish she were here to join in your discussion. I'm not enough of an historian to judge how well she followed "Amanda's Rules" (all of which I agree with), but I know she did extensive research with diaries and other historical documents from her non-invented characters' lives.

Great topic, Tracy!

1:03 PM  
Blogger Margaret Evans Porter said...

Jessica,
What a blast from my past! I remember Eugenia Price's novels very well...they were almost certainly an early influence on me and, like Anya Seton's work, led directly to my becoming a writer of historical fiction.
My family spent many summers on Sea Island and St. Simons, so the locations of those books were very familiar. We often visited the graves of her "characters" at the little white church.
Her first novel, Beloved Invader, is the one I remember best. But I read most of the ones that followed.

2:30 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Blythe, that's a really good point. Often historical research (even contemporary accounts from people who were present at the events in question) offers very conflicting opinions about real historical figures. Whether or not two people really did have an affair, what someone knew and when they knew it, etc... A nonfiction writer can lay out the evidence for different scenarios, but an historical novelist has to decide on the version of "truth" in the world of their novel.

Jessica and Amanda, I haven't read Eugenia Price, though I've heard about her for years. Her books sound fascinating.

3:43 PM  

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