A special thanks to Sean Munger for providing his insightful thoughts on writing historical characters into fiction. This is something I have never done successfully, and I think Sean’s thoughts here are quite helpful.
Characterizing History: Writing Historical Figures as Interesting Characters
by Sean Munger
If, like me, you’re drawn to using the past as inspirations for fictional stories, sooner or later the temptation will be irresistible to use a real-life historical person as a character in your story. This can be a fun way both to draw readers in and also to bolster the realism of your fiction. Whether what you’re writing is truly “historical fiction,” or just a story that takes place in the past—the two are not necessarily congruous—you should be careful of how you treat the real historical people who wind up in your pages.
I have a little experience with this. Some of the real-life people who have appeared in my fiction include the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, President George Washington, an unknown but very real Revolutionary War doctor named Albigence Waldo, serial killer Charles Manson, and anti-Nazi resistance leader Claus von Stauffenberg. In my World War II spy thriller The Armored Satchel, Adolf Hitler makes a brief appearance, though he has no dialogue.
If you’re going to show a real historical person in a story, the first thing you should do is find out as much about them as possible, within reason. Clearly if you’re just featuring him or her in a brief cameo appearance you need not read exhaustive biographies of the person, but do look them up on Wikipedia or do some other research. If you’re writing historical fiction and a real figure is a key character, your research will have to be pretty extensive. Make sure you know what the person looked like, sounded like, and how they behaved toward others. Pick out some details about the person that you think would stick with you if you met them in real life.
A key part of portraying a historical person is to bring them into your story on the same terms as any other character you describe. Thus, you can’t just say, “Then the door opened and Abraham Lincoln stepped into the room,” or at least you can’t leave it at that. Even if it’s a very well-known historical figure—almost everybody knows what Lincoln looked like—you must describe him as if the reader doesn’t know him, gradually building up the description.
To use the Lincoln example, let’s take some things that are commonly known about Lincoln: he was tall, he was sort of gangly and awkward, and he had a high-pitched voice. You can easily transform these details into a compelling introduction. Such as:
“The door to the office opened. The man standing there was almost comic, like a life-sized wooden doll with too-loose joints. He was so tall that his dark tousled hair almost touched the top of the door frame. The way his suit hung on his frame reminded me of a scarecrow. The man stuck out a hairy hand with impossibly long fingers, and said in a squeaky high-pitched voice, ‘Hello. I’m Abe Lincoln.’”
You have a set of unique opportunities—and challenges—when the historical character in your story is someone about whom not much is known, or is not very “famous” in historical terms. For example, one of the main characters in my book Zombies of Byzantium is the Byzantine Emperor Leo III. Aside from various events of his reign (717-741 A.D.), almost nothing is known about Leo’s appearance or personality. I chose to portray him as vainglorious, eccentric and amusingly arrogant, and gave him a completely made-up personality detail: he constantly munches on pistachio nuts. How he behaves in the book winds up being consistent with things we know he did in real life, such as trick an attacking army into destroying their own food supplies. In the process he turned out to be a very colorful character, and the one people usually remember from the book.
How faithful should you be to history in the portrayal of real figures in fiction? As a historian, I think it’s generally a good idea to stick as close to reality as possible, but as a writer, you don’t want to stray too far outside the bounds of reality or your characters will lose credibility. You also have the issue of what readers will expect from a historical character—which is not always historically accurate. If you put Attila the Hun in a story, for example, readers will expect to see a burly, long-haired, bearded barbarian in chain mail and animal skins who rides around setting villages on fire and probably has terrible table manners. In real life Attila may have been quite educated and cultured, able to deal with Roman officials on their own terms; a good story about him would probably mix both reality and fantasy, at times reinforcing and at other times confounding expectations. This can be a delicate balance.
One thing you should not do is take a historical character beyond both accuracy and reasonable expectation, and in this sense there are definite rules for how historical characters are shown. Henry VIII will always, whenever he is portrayed, be loud, boisterous, obese, and obsessed with having a son. That is the essence of both his historical reputation and the expectation of his cultural depictions. Queen Victoria, whenever she shows up in fiction, will always be demure, proper, prudish, well-dressed and imperious in bearing. You don’t mess with these rules. Taking a historical character too far will alienate your audience. I’m thinking of the terrible Michael Bay film Pearl Harbor, where, in one scene, President Franklin D. Roosevelt rises out of his wheelchair and stands up in an inspirational moment. The whole audience groaned; I cringed in embarrassment. In real life FDR could “stand” and “walk” on ceremonial occasions using a combination of metal leg braces and leaning on nearby assistants, but he couldn’t get up out of his wheelchair on his own. You just can’t do this sort of thing. When in doubt, err on the side of historical accuracy.
You can have a lot of fun with historical characters, and your readers can too. I believe that fiction, telling stories about the past, is one of the most important ways people connect with history. Just be sure your historical characters are as well-drawn, compelling and interesting as your fictional characters. They’re all part of the same story.
Sean Munger is a longtime Oregonian, oenophile and lover of history. A former attorney, he is now a teacher and student of U.S. history, working toward a Ph.D. He has also written extensively on heavy metal and the worldwide metal music scene and briefly wrote for a regionally-produced cable TV horror series. Sean recently published a horror novel, Zombies of Byzantium, with publisher Samhain Horror. He has previously written science fiction and historical fiction. Sean’s second book for Samhain Horror, The Zombie Rebellion, due out in 2014, brings him back to his professional specialty of Early American history. The Armored Satchel is his first serial for JukePop Serials