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?