Writing an historical character – what do you do?

I attended a book launch last week of one book about Catherine De Valois – The Agincourt Bride by Joanna Hickson. http://tiny.cc/h6ayqw

Today I read an article about the writing of another forthcoming book on Katherine De Valois, The Forbidden Queen, this time by Anne O’Brien. http://tiny.cc/p7ayqw

A cursory glance at the two covers immediately indicates that these books are about the same person – the picture used in each case is instantly recognisable. But there is one obvious difference – the spelling of her name.

A minor illustration of a greater truth – that much of what is written in historical fiction involving historical characters is a matter of choice and that there is often room for many interpretations of one character’s story. Each author, if they strive to remain true to the known facts may, and likely will, present a very different story.

As readers we should value this variety.

As writers of fiction we must recognize that we write from a starting point of our own perspective and that in some sense our attitudes / belief systems/ even our prejudices will have permeated and helped to form the stories we present.

We should welcome and learn from other, often very different, insights into characters that we, through spending months, or maybe even years with, have come to know and love. It may be an enriching experience.

So – a big question – when writing about an historical character should writers consult other fiction dealing with that same character, or should they restrict themselves to non-fiction sources?

What do you think?

15 thoughts on “Writing an historical character – what do you do?

  1. I make it a point not to read other fictional accounts when I am writing about a character, Margaret. It is important for me to work out my own thoughts from research in non-fiction. That is what my interpretation is based on – historical evidence, not other fictional accounts. (Not even Shakespeare – who was definitely biased!)

  2. Hi Margaret
    I think this is a very interesting question and I tend towards the answer no: the fiction writer should use all possible sources. I say I that because every non-fiction book written for example about Richard III takes a side or in not taking a side makes it crystal clear what the sides are arguing about! So non-fiction sources often present a view just as fictional ones do. It is also quite interesting to
    look at how the character has been portrayed by another writer.
    My book concentrates more on fictional characters but it does take a view on some real ones: Edward IV and Margaret of Anjou to name but two. I’ve read a lot of sources on both of them and my “view” of them is forged by the whole mix of both fiction and nonfiction accounts.


  3. I think it can be helpful to consult other fiction AFTER you have formed a picture of the character in your own mind from reading the historical sources. Oftentimes, it is hard to escape the first impression that you have of a character, and if the first impression is another novelist’s interpretation, you may not be able to present something new with your own novel.

  4. Consult only non fiction sources or include as well fictional sources? To me the answer is “use everything available that suits your purpose.” Historical figures in my novels are tangential to the arc of the character of my heroine, so they must function to support or block her as required by the developing plot. For instance, I carefully select bits of the history of Charles Lindbergh that make sense in the development of my heroine. I also insert Lindbergh into fictional situations where his presence and actions are possible but not historically factual. In other words he becomes a fictional as well as a historical character, The Lindbergh persona has a similar hybrid function in novels by Eric Norden and Philip Roth, where it is more central to the plot than in my novels.

  5. Good to hear other’s views – I veer towards the use only non-fiction until the book is written. Weldon has raised another interesting point – fictionalizing a real character – we all do that – don’t we?

  6. I would stick to non-fiction sources, though a fictional work might bring up questions for further research. My concern is the “changing” of history- kind of like what Shakespeare partially accomplished. It has taken some work to get the picture straight again after his works on some persons, and they are not yet crystal clear.

  7. Well folks just bear in mind that there is no such thing as an unbiased source – whether primary or secondary. Every chronicler brought his own bias and limitations to his recording of events and historians never agree – nor should they or history would be very boring. My point is that “non-fiction” sources can be just as misleading and unreliable as fictional ones. e.g. Paul Murray Kendall’s Richard III – I rest my case…

    • I agree Derek. It can be difficult to assess even with original nf sources close to the timing of events and people just how much of the writer’s bias has influenced what was written – or how much they represent the expedient view of the time. Ironic really that we can place more credence on information on ordinary life when we find it – details of housing, food, clothing etc (for example I found a snippet once detailing how much napery was required for a particular dinner given in a house on the High Street in Edinburgh in the late 16thc) than on the information regarding important people and events. doubly ironic that there seems still to be a perception that Historical fiction set before the Victorian era must be royalty-focused.

      • At least with nonfiction the writer was trying to write history or record household facts, whatever, and did so as he/she saw it rather than make something up out of the blue. This was not always true when it came to victories in war and such things where pride was involved and downright lies were recorded, but if a person was keeping a journal or writing about what was going on around him in the world with the intent of recording reality- at least we have what really happened according to his viewpoint and that can be helpful today in discerning things about factions. On Facebook yesterday two fiction writers were saying that others make too much of accuracy – for them it is just about a good story. When someone reads their books they might pick up on what was said, assume it is based on truth and history is “changed”.

  8. Historical characters appear in my books as minor secondary characters only. I use both non-fiction sources and fictional sources. However, if I was writing about an historical character, I’d use non-fiction only.

    • Interestingly, though my main character is fictional almost all the characters in the book are historical, so an important issue for me.

  9. There’s an element of fear in this judgement. I don’t want to read other fiction about a character central to anything I am doing for fearof two things: 1. that another writer has views similar to my own about the ‘true’ nature of that character and has therefore queered my pitch 2. that their representation of the character is so convincing and well written that attempting another angle is a waste of my time. I get over my fears and read the other fiction because I am looking for the negative not the positive. I don’t expect to find out anything that my own research hasn’t or won’t uncover unless the author has unusual access to primary sources. I also remind myself that the non-fictional history books I have consulted to find out more about my central character are full of interpretive biases and should sometimes be regarded as historical fiction without the dialogue.

  10. In the process of writing, I think I would want to work with as much non-fiction (and from as many different points of view) as possible. However, as a reader of historical fiction, I think it would be very difficult NOT to be influenced in some way by fiction I have already read. Some of my perceptions of many historical figures are based on fiction accounts that I read before reading the biography or historical background.

  11. I’m not sure where you are getting your info, but great topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more. Thanks for fantastic information I was looking for this info for my mission.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.