Fiction with Nonfiction Characters
- By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jul 02 2009
Can one write a story with historical figures with plotlines involving these characters including historical truths as well as substantial fictional elements? And if so when submitting it does one say it is a fictional story based on true characters…or do you just leave it alone?
Absolutely! In fact, I think the best historical fiction includes a great number of facts, and the occasional historical figure or two. It only make sense really. How would you write about the Civil War without including at least some reference to some of the most famous generals this country has ever seen?
You didn’t make it very clear in your question, but do you plan to write a fictional story based on a real-life character or include real-life characters in the book you are writing about someone else? Certainly both have been done, done a lot and done well, but I’m just wondering. If you are writing about more famous historical characters, like, for example, Abraham Lincoln, and the story is really about him, I think you’re going to have a much bigger challenge. This is someone whose life has been written about numerous times and true fans might have trouble with the fictionalized tale. If, however, you are writing about John Jones, a fictional character during the Civil War, and Lincoln makes an appearance or has a regular role in the story, I think fans of Lincoln and the Civil War will likely be more forgiving.
This is precisely what I and almost all other historical writers do. Mixing fiction into established historical fact is enormous fun.
You shouldn't need to spell out the obvious in your query. When I was querying agents, mine said my hero Nicolaos was the elder brother of Socrates, who worked as an agent for the promising young politician Pericles. That's enough to tell an agent this is historical fiction!
My favorite novel is Ken Follett's THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH. The end dovetails into true history with the murder of St. Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury; albeit with a few fictional characters thrown in to tie the event into the preceding story.
It inspired me to do research so I could find out how much of the beginning was fiction, it did such a convincing job of blurring the lines.
As it turns out, it's solid fiction except for Becket's murder.
This is something I've been discussing – from the opposite direction (?) I'm in a writing group with a woman who is writing an extensive book (and an amazing one) based on a real-life character from 2000 years ago. It's essentially narrative non-fiction, except there are gaps in history where no one knows what happened. So, she's making it up. And making it up very well, imo. She gets worried about making it up, and whether it will sell as narrative non-fiction if there are fictionalized parts to it. We've all been telling her not to worry about it. Based on this post, I think we're right….I hope we're right. There's an overlap between fiction and non-fiction when you're writing history that's just unavoidable.
This historical YA I'm working on has at least one, maybe two, "real" characters in it. My feeling is that I must be accurate on facts that I can find out, and facts that can be seen–like dates, locations, etc. I think it's my job, though, as a fiction writer to stretch a bit beyond that, since she'll be interacting with my fictional characters. My gut is that I can use interpretation to extrapolate on some of the meaning behind her actions and in terms of things she might/would have said/done in my made-up situations.
I think. 🙂
I agree with Gary, this is what makes historical fiction so much fun! 🙂
My current work in progress is totally fiction, but I can't wait to jump into a historical novel… but I have to finish this one first!
Thanks for the tips!
Laurie King does this with both famous fictional characters (Sherlock Holmes, Kim O'Hara) and historical figures from the same time frame. Great books, fun to read, and well researched so the details ring true. It's not just for historical fiction!
It's why I love historical fiction–I can blend my love of history and story telling together!
It's always a challenge too, especially when your book takes place in another culture and most of the info about a real person is written in a foreign language 😛
Semi-related question. What about setting a fictional story in a real place? The setting for my story is southeast Michigan, but I've fictionalized town names, road names, etc… My preference would be to use the real names, but I wonder if this could cause problems.
I've been reading the Flashman papers. These are great books about a truly despicable character who managed to bluff, lie, cheat and fake his way through almost every major war of Britain (and a lot in the United States, Mexico, etc.) during the 1800's. These books enterwine with hundreds of real historical persons, events and locations are carefully footnoted and obviously not true, but are entertaining reads.
One warning the character has typical attitudes of an nineteenth century person to non-whites and very loose morals in general, so if you are easily offended they might not be the books for you.
I think Morgan Llywelyn serves as a fabulous example of this.
I was just reading about this last night. Cynthia Ozick's Essay, "The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination" in QUARREL & QUANDARY does a great job of examining what works and what doesn't it historical fiction. She takes two examples of historical fiction novels – one is Sophie's Choice, the other an old propaganda novel, and compares the merits of the two. She also discusses when a novelist has a responsibility to historical fact, and when a novelist can manipulate that reality successfully.
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Sometimes the subject matter or disclosure of sources central to the story prevents pure nonfiction approaches. Also, narraive non fiction can fill gaps in fact with suppositions of the author or sources. It is the social commentary that moves the story along and sometimes those with the story can't tell it like it is/was. Just don't pretend that its nonfiction if it has elements of fiction….or Oprah will get you.