The Pros and Cons of Writing Real Folks into Fiction

More than once in some of the listservs where I lurk and on occasion blurt out my thoughts, someone will write that if s/he encounters a real person as protagonist in a novel–s/he’ll abandon the book.

I swallow hard to read this, since my two recent mysteries feature real-life Mary Wollstonecraft, along with sundry historical booksellers, orphans, artists, governesses, clergymen, murderers who once walked, stumbled, or slept in the wild streets of an 18th-century city. But I love history and I love the people who made it, and since there are no time machines to zoom me back into the murky past, I can try to enter and reinvent their lives through my writing.

And I’m not alone. The New York Times Book Review recently noted “an exotic fictional growth (that) has begun to overrun the biographical landscape.” Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen (in Stephanie Barron’s mysteries) have all come to vibrant life on the page. Or digging deep into theatrical history, consider Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Henry VIII, and many others. “Unlike the biographer,” the Times allows, “the novelist is not constrained by documented facts or their frustrating absence, and is free to roam–always keeping authenticity and plausibility in mind, through character and motive.”

Of course there can be pitfalls using real people, especially those with litiginous descendants. I should have learned my lesson back in ’89 when I published a memoir in which I used people’s names without written permission. I had treated everyone lovingly, I felt, yet still sighed with relief when no one sued–especially after one acquaintance complained that I ‘d told a humorous story about her father who manufactured and relished his own booze. Anyone who knew the man already “knew,” but now his flaw was in print for all to see. Oh dear.

But had I not used real names, my critic might not have discovered her father as a character. For often, I’ve found, people perceive themselves differently from the way others might see them. Once my mother-in-law was dead certain she recognized herself as an elegant clubwoman, when I’d actually cast her as a bossy bus driver. I never told her that. We writers have to keep a few secrets of the trade, don’t we?

So yes, I feel safer using historical figures (Hogarth painting above), even when they might have numerous descendants, like Robert King from my novel Midnight Fires. The aristocrat King shot his daughter’s lover point blank, with impunity, when she refused an arranged marriage. To me, that put him virtually in the public domain; I felt free to portray him as the womanizer and tyrant he was. My protagonist Mary and her six siblings had no living heirs, so I’d no worries there. But critics called Mary “mad, a hyena in petticoats” after the publication of her Vindication of the Rights of Woman; and “licentious, wanton” when she returned from revolutionary Paris with a natural child. My mission, then, in using her persona, was to show her as the original, caring, though conflicted, woman she truly was.

But I had to keep her in her historical time and place, and thoroughly research her life and personality in order to “become her.” I think my diligent editor Meredith Phillips did as much research as I did to keep me on track! The five biographies I read, along with Mary’s collected letters, helped with this task–I could hear her voice (she loved to talk) in my inner ear. Moreover, I had to make her a believable sleuth–not a hard task as she had a brilliant, inquisitive mind, and though a bit of a random-abstract, was determined to right any wrongs in her world. She once “kidnapped” her sister from an abusive husband, changing carriages in mid-flight with the fellow in hot pursuit, while the sister bit her wedding ring “to pieces!”

So fellow scribes, if you’re up for the challenge, try choosing a colorful, conflicted person living in eventful times, and I guarantee you’ll have fun. The underlying plot is basically your character’s life story already spread out before you; your job is to blend fact with fiction so seamlessly that, in the words of Patricia Wynn, author of the superb Blue Satan series, it will be all but impossible to see “where fact ends and fiction begins.”


11 Responses

  1. Hello, dear readers: I welcome any comments re: the use of real-life people in one’s fiction, pro or con. So even if you would abandon the book featuring a real-life person, I would love to hear from you, and why…. I hope to learn from any comments!

  2. Thanks, Nancy, but I didn’t do more research than you (just read parts of 2 books that you referred to in introductory material). You’re definitely the Wollstonecraft, and late 18th c., expert!
    I’d love to read the Stephanie Barron book you refer to that features Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf; what’s the title?
    I’m not put off at all by real people in historical fiction, as long as they act credibly for the times, and in character (and don’t drop their real-life vocations to chase after mysteries).

    • Thanks for your response, Meredith, and I’m so happy, of course, that you like historical persons in your fiction! And soon, I believe, PP will be publishing a mystery featuring Pericles? No, “Vanessa and Virginia” is a relatively new novel by Susan Sellers (Houghton Mifflin), I was only referring to Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen series, but fear I didn’t make myself clear.
      And yes, yours is an excellent point that historical characters should not drop their real-life vocations to chase after mysteries! One has to find a black hole or two in their recorded lives to implant a mystery. Wollstonecraft, for ex, had a bad case of writer’s block in 1792, and couldn’t seem to write a word, although her publisher pressed her to do so.

  3. Nancy–thanks so much for the post about real-life historical characters! My work-in-progress is set in New Orleans during the Civil War and I use you (and several other writers I’ve “met” thru Crime Thru Time) as the example in how to fit real people into historical mystery–after all, what would 1862 New Orleans be like without “Beast” Butler and his Woman’s Order or Marie Laveau and her Voodoo or Margaret Haughery and her many charities?

    Now, on the other hand, I’m not quite sure I’m ready to read about Lincoln hunting vampires…somehow, mysteries seem a better “fit” for historical characters than paranormals (as much as I like that genre). Your thoughts, please?

    • Thanks, Linda, for your kind remarks about us CTTers who use real-life people in our work. I love your New Orleans setting! A magical city, yes! And I’m glad you’ll use some of those intriguing historical men and women. “Beast Butler” sounds fascinating, and Marie Laveau with her Voodoo… You can surely incorporate her thoughts and experiments with voodoo into a book that is not a paranormal. I would love to hear more about her as you research and climb inside her skin. You can even go into the point of view of 2 or 3 of these people–each contributing to the overall plot, and commenting on the others to deepen characterization. In fact, I gather you already have, with this work in progress? And with the Civil War as an ominous background…the novel sounds highly promising! Go for it! Keep in touch!

  4. An interesting post, Nancy. My feelings about real-life characters depends on whether I have an emotional connection to the person on whom the character is based. I think Mary Wollstonecraft is a wonderful character on whom to base a series, but as a Bloomsbury follower, I’m uncomfortable with characters based on Virginia Woolf or Vanessa Bell. The same is true for Jane Austen.

    • A wise thought, Anita–thanks so much for responding! Yes, it really helps to have an emotional attachment to the historical character in question–especially to write about her/him! But also to read about the person. I can understand how you feel about the Bloomsbury women, Bell and Woolf (I wrote my college thesis on Virginia Woolf, whom I adored). According to the NYTimes, the author wrote very sensitively about Vanessa and Virginia, particularly in relation to their sibling rivalries. Sometimes even the biographers do “get it wrong.” I’ve read 5 or 6 biographies on Wollstonecraft, and the attitudes toward her differ significantly. So even nonfiction doesn’t always capture the inner life of an historical person. But I’ve learned so much by writing about MW and her times–and her struggles–the best I can do to keep her alive after she was maligned for so long.

  5. One issue in using historical characters is how long ago they might have lived and whether any living persons are related to your character. A friend of mine set a novel in the early 20th century. A notorious gangster from that era appeared in the novel. At a book signing, a man stepped up and identified himself as the great-grandson of the gangster. My friend is still alive, as of this writing. My historical sleuth, Pliny the Younger, left no progeny, but he did leave almost 250 letters, including a couple in which he informs his wife’s relatives about her miscarriage. The letters give us insight into Pliny’s mindset and character. I’ve even used my translations of a few of the letters in my novels. I do enjoy historical personages in historical mysteries, but I agree that you have to find some space in the person’s life which is relatively undocumented. What was that person doing during that time? Why, solving a mystery, of course.

    • Thanks, Albert, for joining the conversation. You’re lucky, as I’ve been to have all those great letters! But that descendant of the gangster must have scared your friend. I’d love to hear more about the outcome of that confrontation. I’ve been lucky, so far, re: descendants of a few unsavory secondary characters. But at least a few centuries have intervened to soften any outrage. I look forward to reading your Pliny!

  6. I don’t think I would have the courage to use a real person as the main protagonist. One person who does it wonderfully, though, is Peter Lovesey in his books featuring Bertie, Prince of Wales. Making real people minor characters adds texture to a story and helps the reader situate in time. However, research is essential. I once refused to blurb an otherwise good book because they at Thomas Becket doing something he’d never have done at a place where we know he wasn’t.

    • You’re absolutely right, Sharan, that research is essential. I wouldn’t have tried to write Mary W into a novel without (literally) years of research. And again, I was lucky to have her letters, along with a number of biographies in order to get my facts straight. The errors in the book you read re: Becket are inexcusable! Obviously that writer had a very lax editor. I’ve been lucky in mine! … But I’m glad you’ve tried using real-life persons as minor characters. It’s fun to research their lives as well, and to see how they interact with the protagonist. …
      I appreciate your taking the time to write out your thoughts. It’s very helpful.

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