Using Real People in Historical Fiction

Happy President’s Day!

Today I want to talk about an issue that was raised a few weeks ago by one of our first page contributors who is proposing to use a real historical figure (namely Samuel Pepys) in his historical mystery. The brave submitter asked whether, if he did use the actual person in his novel, he had to include all that person’s flaws (which could ultimately make the character less sympathetic.) My initial answer was that my preference would be to either use the real person, warts and all, or fictionalize the character entirely…but the question got me thinking about the issue a little deeper, as it highlights the often blurred distinction between fact and fiction in many novels, not just historical fiction (although today I’m going to limit my scope to historical figures, so we don’t have to deal with defamation/libel and all the attendant risks when using real people who are still alive and well!).

Some novels become more ‘faction’ than fiction, when they use historical figures as material for their novels, especially where they try to stick to the historical record as accurately as possible. Even when novelists attempt to do this, however, they almost inevitably come under criticism for aspects that have either been omitted from the book or where the fictionalization differs from reader/reviewer expectations. While I enjoy reading well-researched historical fiction novels, I do get irritated when historical figures are used more as a hook or gimmick rather than the springboard for a truly compelling characterization or plot. I see this more in genre fiction and while I admire any writer who wants to incorporate real people in their mysteries, for me it has to be more than just a cute premise – which is perhaps why I tend not to read novels that involve real historical figures supposedly solving crimes when they obviously didn’t.

In my own novels, I use real historical figures to give historical context/texture to the story but not usually as protagonists or other main characters. I do, however, enjoy channeling real people and their stories to create my own characters. For me, it would be a far trickier proposition to use a real historical figure as I would feel constrained by the truth (or at least what the historical record/sources indicate is the truth) and would feel compelled to be as accurate as possible in my portrayal of that person. Fictional characters have no such constraints:) The only exception to this, for me, is in the realm of speculative historical fiction – where, again, the speculative/alternative nature of the history presented gives an author far more leeway to deviate from the truth. Having completed a speculative YA novel myself that incorporated a real historical figure, I did, however, feel a duty to research the real person in order to know how to create the speculative or alternative historical version (it was a lot of fun too!).

As with everything in writing, if you decide to use a real historical figure or person in your novel you have to do it well. Do your historical research, reach out to descendants if there are any (especially if you’re planning to create a less than flattering representation of the person), be mindful of how you incorporate real and fictionalized elements, and, above all, be conscious of your choices and don’t just use a historical figure as a gimmick but as a real flesh and blood character. My key take home message from all of this would be: if in doubt, fictionalize.

So TKZers, I’d love to get your feedback and opinions on this. What advice would you give a writer who is planning on using a real historical figure in their novel?

14 thoughts on “Using Real People in Historical Fiction

  1. Good question, Clare. I did a 6-book historical series set in early 1900s L.A. I had historical figures making appearances…e.g., Theodore Roosevelt; William Randolph Hearst; John Barrymore. I fictionalized their interactions with my MC, but did my research to make those consistent with what we know about them. I think this technique adds great color to historicals.

    One issue that popped into mind is that the later the history, the trickier things get. That is, the more historical data available, the more you have to match the facts to the story. For instance, when I had Roosevelt appear in Los Angeles, I based it on an actual appearance, verified via the archives of the Los Angeles Times, etc. That wouldn’t be as much of an issue writing, say, Shakespeare in Love.

    • You make a great point about using more recent historical figures as I do think that requires a writer to go the extra mile when doing their research as there’s so much that’s more verifiable. The further back you go, the more leeway you have to fictionalize events and interactions – though that doesn’t mean you don’t still have to do your research:)

  2. My question is on using real corporations. My PoV character worked for a division of Nokia that designed dashboard GPS systems and was bought out by Mercedes. My protagonist needs to be a GPS expert. He also needs to lose his job because his division was bought out. This really happened two years ago. Can I mention these two companies or is it safer to fictionalize these companies?

    • I think it probably depends on how those companies are being represented – if you disparage them then I think there’s a potential legal issue. From what I’ve read (and I’m by no means an expert on this) I think fictionalizing the companies may be a safer bet but if you do want to use the real names I’d get some legal advice just to be safe:)

  3. Slowly I turned, step by step, inch by inch . . .

    My current foray into historical fiction reminds me of the old Abbott ‘n’ Costello routine about solving a puzzle, getting so engrossed in it the tail that the story teller attacks the guy–Costello–as he is telling the story.

    My story is a WWII tale, an epic in which a jerk of a Office of Naval Intelligence lieutenant who has only one skill–kidnapping people–that can either be used for rescue of allies or capturing enemies, plies his trade and makes a bad, bad mistake.

    In developing the character, I decided that he was the son of a U.S. Army major whose family once lived in base housing next door to President nee General Eisenhower. As I continued to develop the story line, I found my characters ran, to my surprise, into numerous real people: Iva Toguri (once known as Tokyo Rose), Atsuko Ikeda (formerly Atsuko, Princess Yori, the fourth daughter of Emperor Hirohito–now called Emperor Showa), of course General Eisenhower, and a number of others.

    Researching these famous folk has been tedious.

    Also, I’ve had to research (again) the B-17G bomber, the M1 rifle.

    I’ve had to make up a whole island and some of the culture of the people who lived there.

    But it’s also given me a chance to get a little revenge. The director of one of the two Gila River Japanese Internment camps gets caught in an outhouse in a high windstorm while out in the field inspecting one of the agricultural projects.

    On and on, step-by-step.

    They can’t hang a guy for making fun of a Japanese Kempeitai commander, a Rikugun-Shōsa, a major, who claims he’s related to the Imperial household, can they?

    • I can’t really advise you on the legalities but I think it makes a difference if they are truly fictional characters or if they closely resemble/are recognizable as real (still living) people.

  4. Thought-provoking questions, Clare!

    One classic example is Herman Wouk’s Winds of War and War and Remembrance, about a fictional naval officer selected by FDR to carry out various intelligence missions during WWII. Like Jim Bell’s character, Wouk’s Victor Henry has close encounters with historical figures like Hitler and Stalin, and his missions involve actual historical events.

    Wouk’s fiction remained firmly tied to facts yet his depiction of history came alive b/c of the way real events impacted fictional characters.

    Wouk would be my role model if I ever tackled such an ambitious project.

    Your alternative history sounds fascinating. Let us know when it’s published!

    • Herman Wouk is a great example! I think weaving real historical figures and events into a novel where the focus is still very much on fictional characters is a great way to bring history alive in a novel. I’ll keep you posted on my own alternative history YA – nothing in this industry is ever fast so we will just have to see how it all goes:)

  5. There are a great many books and movies with fictional characters interacting with real life historical figures. To the first question, no you do not need to include “warts and all”, although, making JFK an alter boy might not fly with your readers. As James Scott Bell pointed out, do your research. You do not want to go 15 rounds with a historian because U. S Grant never fought in Georgia. (don’t check me, I made it up.) The same for time period actions and products. Someone will catch that you have your MC listening to “Taxman” by the Beatles in 1964 when it was released in 1966.

    Be very careful using real companies and real events. Real companies have real lawyers who may not like your story line. Ditto some historical figures. Star Trek: The Next Generation discovered that while A. Conan Doyle has been dead for quite some time, his estate defends Sherlock Holmes to this day when Data became a fan.

    • Thanks Alan – research is fundamental to historical fiction and you’d better have your facts right as readers will definitely call you out on any mistake:) – and yes on the caveat re: companies and estates with lots of lawyers!

  6. Not sure I qualify as a “TKZer,” but this is right up my alley and something I spent much self-debate time on in creating my birth-of-NYC HF saga.

    I agree that the greater the elapsed time, the more flexibility there is for the author. For me, it was 400+ years.

    Ultimately, I follow the Ken Follett rule: events/characters’ actions in the story either *did* happen, or they *could have*. Case in point: Henry Hudson. We know a bit from the historical record, but—thankfully for me—not much, including the fact that his journal from his discovery voyage to NYC in 1609 was lost (for now). Which opens up lots of possibilities for weaving him into the story ;-).

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