The Statues

One of the delights in writing historical fiction is imagining how real-life figures might act in situations that you devise. An author in this genre loves history anyway, and the personage can be one of the targets of research. As anyone engaged in this pursuit knows, many legends do not have firmly known personality traits beyond, say, George Washington’s steadfastness. That gives an author the leeway to make it up as it goes, to a certain extent.

Exploring the man (or woman) behind the myth can lead to pitfalls, though. The first occurs when featuring the personage on a recurring basis. One dictum of storytelling is that a character who appears regularly should gain increasing depth in order to maintain the reader’s interest in her. If the person on the throne, for one example, keeps on benevolently smiling when the protagonist reports, the reader stops caring about the ruler, and may even get annoyed because the character isn’t doing anything new. Totems are tall and impressive, but they always look the same.

A more serious offense is trivializing the personage. Such a character possesses a magnetism merely by virtue of being well-known. If you think about it, that happens in real life too, such as meeting Ellen Degeneres in the grocery store. She’s just buying squash, but you tell all your friends about the chance encounter. In fiction, a reader’s antenna bristles upon the mention. Does the writer’s conception of the person match the historical facts the reader knows about him? If Grover Cleveland keeps showing up at a brothel, wanting to try a new position in the Kama Sutra, exposing his big old belly over and over again, the reader may well become offended. He was a president, after all.

The harder work is doing such extensive research that an author feels confident enough to imagine how the personage would react in a fictional situation. George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo demonstrates the author’s brilliance, to be sure, but he also did a ton of research on Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. In order to pull off even a lesser feat means that an author needs to commit the hours needed to comb through correspondence, memoranda, etc. That may not be such a daunting prospect, however, for someone who loves research anyway. If a famous person exerts an instant pull on readers, think of how thrilled you will be when inhabiting her from the inside.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for any historical figures. Read the scenes focusing solely on them. Do their reactions show any fruits of research? If so, are you adding anything to a general reader’s impression of them, based on their high school history lessons, or the like? You are using the personages to aid your cause, so they should possess at least as much individuality as your other characters.

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”
—Winston Churchill

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.