1. Birmingham
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    Birmingham Active Member

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    Real people as characters

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Birmingham, Jan 7, 2013.

    We've all read historical dramas that mix reality with fiction. Dramas such as War & Remembrence, mash-ups such as "Lincoln vs. Zombies" or "Millard Fillmore vs. Vampires" (happy birthday to president Fillmore, btw, Jan. 7)

    How wise is it to insert real people as characters? Let us say, for example, that I write a story in which I mix real characters with fictional ones. If I truly just go with it, I feel I might get into some trouble, in this PC age, this sensitive age. Sure, others have done it before me. Herman Wouk portrayed FDR as a flawed person in War & Remembrence. Tom Clancy killed Yeltzin. John Birmingham wrote an alternate history book in which Bush and Cheney die, and Ariel Sharon kills 85 million Arabs and Iranians.

    I'm writing a short story that includes the US president and CIA director as minor characters. It's funny because I actually had to look for the name of the guy who temporarily replaced Patreus, and less than 24 hours later I learn that Obama picked Brannan for the job.

    I can decide to just pick random names for these characters, and, maybe, base them partially on any real politician I want. Or, I can actually named them Obama and Brannan and inject some of the actual facts about these two men.

    My main character is militant who used to like the US but gradually feels betrayed by it, and even gets into rhetoric of how tyrants should be killed, etc. You see where I'm going with this. It doesn't represent my emotions, and that character is designed to be a villain, but, still, if you were to write a character who encourages violence against a politician, would you pick a fictional politician or an actual living politician?

    Also, would you be more comfortable writing a character based on a politician you support or oppose? Just wonderin.
     
  2. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would pick a fictional politician but primarily because having a real one dates your story. Even if everything went perfectly for you, and you got an agent and a publisher right away, your book most likely wouldn't come out before the end of Obama's term. (Or, if you want to imagine it as a smashing success, like the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, if you wanted to spend a few years on the best seller list, you wouldn't want your setting to seem stale soon after the book is released.)

    Also, there is historical fiction, in which characters are inserted, but rendered in a manner that they might really have acted, and the historical details are kept accurate, and alternative fiction, which imagines history having taken a different course, there's obviously more leeway to play with the details, because many things *could* have been.

    As far as whether I'd set it with President I opposed or supported, it would depend on the story. Whatever worked better for the storyline is what I'd go with.
     
  3. Anielle
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    Anielle Member

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    Unless your story is in a genre other than literary fiction or non-fiction I would use made up names. Lincoln Vampire Hunter worked out because the world in the book wasn't fictional and is almost impossible to get confused with reality (except the crazies who believe that vampires really exist).

    I'm not one for politics and debating but I feel it would be easier for me to write a story with a president I opposed. Conflict even in the sub plot is interesting and keeps the reader intrigued, however if I was writing a story where the President was a minor character I would most like go with one I supported so there wouldn't be too much research into opposing arguments, saving the conflict for the main characters.
     
  4. Birmingham
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    Birmingham Active Member

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    Thanks for the answers, guys, you're always coming through for me.

    Chicagoliz,
    I'm not talking about a novel, but a short story. I just thought it would be cool to put it at this specific place in time, and I could do this by having the anti-American character going "to hell with the Obama!" etc, and have the readers know that the Commander in Chief who sent the troops who are fighting this guy is in fact Barack Obama. Not because I love him or hate him, but because he's the guy in office at the moment.

    And, yes, I do agree with you that if I'm writing about Obama, I should at least get close to what he's like, or at least what I think he's probably like. Naturally, I could be wrong. Or maybe I could make a wild guess as to how he is in private and be 100% right. Either case would make a humorous anecdote for the future, like the claims made by conservatives that the SNL character of Reagan was actually closer to real life than the SNL writers could imagine.

    Anielle,
    The world I'm writing isn't really fictional. It does have one unmarked country (where most of the plot takes place) but aside from that, it's our world, with the Americans, and the Iranians, and all of those interests and crises of geopolitics pretty much the same as we have them today.


    My decision:
    At the end I'm going with fictional characters. That way I can play a little with the history of the characters. I can make it similar to that of certain people, or not. I can play around with the age, the sex, and how close they are to election or reelection (artistically, I think most stories would work better if the president has an election right around the corner just as one extra explosive ball for him/her to juggle. Obama isn't there anymore).

    Leaders we like vs. ones we do not:
    I actually think it would be more challenging and fun to write (or act) a character you do not naturally connect with, as long as you don't see that person as a purely cynical evil person. I'm talking both about actual people who believe differently from you, or fictional characters who do. I think it's more fascinating trying to humanize someone from the other side of the aisle, someone that you often cannot stand. That way you'll also have to write his beliefs from his own perspective, and try to see where he truly does come from. Many people mess it up, I think. Six Feet Under tried to have a sympathetic conservative characters, but when that character articulated his politics, he was either uber-simple or uber-complex, and became a cartoon character.

    I think you should check out Ralph Reed's "Dark Horse". Reed seems to be in love with the idea of humanizing his political opponents. His goal was to show how both parties are terrible, but I think that his democrat characters are the most compelling, and his republican characters are mostly over the top. And he's a republican! He was the head of the Christian coalition or something. To be fair, I never finished the book. I should return to it, and you guys should pick it up.

    Thanks again for your input :)
     
  5. Birmingham
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    Birmingham Active Member

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    Oh, and one more quick thing: What do you think about having the American politicians coming from unmarked parties? Like "The Manchurian Candidate" or like "Boss", and "Prison Break" to some extent. To me, it feels at times like a total copout. Especially if we're talking about something long like a book, a series of books, or a TV show.

    Of course, I'm writing a short story, in which America is involved in an external rather than internal battle.
     
  6. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Allan Drury wrote an entire series, beginning with "Advise and Consent", that never mentioned the name of a political party. They didn't seem to suffer from it ("Advise and Consent" won the Pulitzer, and whatever shortcomings the other books in the series had, it wasn't due to lack of identification of political parties). My own view is that naming the parties, if anything, could be too limiting in terms of what the characters might do, and might make your work more polemic than you intend. OTOH, if you intend it to be polemic, you don't want to turn off the readership who identify with the opposing party.
     
  7. Dannabis
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    Dannabis New Member

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    I think the danger of using real people is that the audience already has a preconceived idea of them and there is little room for manoeuvring. Also, it pins down the rest of the plot and people will naturally complain when you inevitably make historical inaccuracies. Personally, I think a certain level of inaccuracies have to be acceptable, but there are many who refuse to see it like that.
     
  8. Apollo.
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    Apollo. Member

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    I think it's a great idea! Most of my stories contain real people. I do that in order to create a sense of realism within my stories, even if some of them are sci-fi. these real people have had moments that may have happened but we'll never truly know and as a writer you can fill in those spaces, therefore it makes my stories more believable and that is one element that makes a great story!

    The trick is to ensure your historical events and the preconceived characters are accurate from the audiences/readers point of view. In other words the audience/reader could be left with saying "that could of happened" or "what if that really could have happen".
     
  9. Salamander
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    Salamander Member

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    I would definitely stick to people that are dead if you are involving historical characters in your work. It's certainly doable, just look at Turtledove, but you have to have a very intimate knowledge of your source and digress from actual history in a semi-realistic or at least, well justified manner. Obviously, this gets harder the more recently dead the person in question is, as the gaps in the historical narrative that you have to tell your story within are much smaller.
     

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