Relying on Heroes

When an author decides to include a real-life person in a novel that takes place in the past, the natural inclination is to research that figure intensively, if for no other reason than to avoid screwing up. Having a bushel full of facts can be a terrific basis for drawing up personality traits for the character. Scenes can be written from that point of view with some surety that they will ring true.

Such confidence that you’ve done your homework does not, however, change the fundamental principles of fiction writing. Unless your portrayal is a literary deep dive into the personage’s life, those scenes must still advance the plot. All of the characters in the book are ranked by how much they are driving the story forward.

A scene that doesn’t do that job most likely involves a lot of dialogue. No matter how smart and witty it is, it can devolve into nattering. This is where a historical figure’s point of view can be so dangerously seductive. Maybe Aaron Burr would rib Thomas Jefferson over being a rube in the city, but what is the reader getting out of the scene besides clever repartee, colonial-style?

A second principle concerns the reader’s familiarity, and thus identification, with a character. If Aaron Burr, to continue that example, starts cracking jokes about all of his mistresses, the reader may be left smiling awkwardly. Were there any scenes earlier with a mistress? the reader may wonder. Was I supposed to know that about him?

In this case, a real-life person may work better if she is paired up with a leading fictional character. If your heroine has two left thumbs when it comes to sewing, a scene with Betsy Ross takes on a different meaning. It may be that the historical figure is a foil in a mystery told by a wisecracking protagonist. You can even use historical perception of type in a running gag. In one scene Betsy is still sitting primly in the parlor while a debauched Continental Congress party is swirling around her.

Using a historical figure as merely an accompaniment to a main character often is the best strategy. You get the glow without the limits of what the person was really like. That arrangement puts the characters that the reader really gets to know in their proper place.

Exercise: Go through the manuscript, and each time a historical character appears, write down how he advanced the plot. If a major character appears in that same scene, also write down how she advanced the plot. A single sentence or two for each character for each entry on your list. When you’re finished, you’ll see what the historical character is really doing—for your book.

“I am thankful the most important key in history was invented. It's not the key to your house, your car, your boat, your safety deposit box, your bike lock or your private community. It's the key to order, sanity, and peace of mind. The key is ‘Delete.’”
—Elayne Boosler

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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