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?