1. Karwedsky
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    Karwedsky Member

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    Using real historical characters?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Karwedsky, Jun 15, 2013.

    What are your opinions on using real people from history (recent or far past) as characters in fiction? Do you find them more or less interesting as characters to read about.

    For example in Phillip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series, everyone from all of earth's history is resurrected on an a planet covered by a seemingly endless river valley. The main character for the series is Sir Richard Francis Burton and he meets many other minor and major characters from history.

    I've been developing a MC (right now he is a real person from history) for a time travel novel, and I have been toying with whether or not I should include more real historical characters, or just create fictional historical characters for my MC to meet.
     
  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    My opinion is the same for both. How interesting they are will depend on how you write them. How you handle the facts of the real lives of historical figures will determine whether the character is well fleshed out or tediously lecturing us on history.
     
  3. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    My experience is that the things that make characters compelling for readers have little to do with whether they are historical figures or contrived from the author's imagination. As Wreybies says, it's all down to how well you write them.

    There are lots of variations on historical fiction. There are novels that take historical events and fictionalize the interactions of real people, like David Nevin's 1812 (he called it "the imagined inside story of the known outside story"), some that also add fictional characters to give the story depth, like Michael Shaaraa's The Killer Angels, some that focus on fictional characters, and use historical figures only as minor characters and points of reference, like Herman Wouk's The Winds of War (and, if I may say so, my own current project, Rosa's Secret), and some that use the flow if history as their starting point and setting, but with the focus on the characters' personal stories, like James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific.

    There are novels that twist historical outcomes and present an "alternative history", such as Phillip Roth's The Plot Against America and some that put historical figures into completely different times, such as Dermot McEvoy's Terrible Angel: A Novel About Michael Collins in New York.

    So, whatever flavor of historical fiction you are contemplating has been done, both poorly and well. Don't ask us.

    Go. Write.
     
  4. erebh
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    erebh Contributing Member Contributor

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    Using real historical characters in fiction

    Hmmm, I think it really depends what you mean exactly. Are you talking about a what if? What if Jimmy Hendrix was the president of America and he legalised all sorts of stuff not legal today kinda thing? I think that would be a lot of fun.

    I believe that every human at least at one stage of their life met a fork in the road and the path they took changed their life immeasurably and unbeknown to them, maybe some of them did know, if only I took that class at school, or continued saxophone lessons, or didn't go on that robbery that night. That would be really interesting if that's what you meant and it gives me a lot of ideas right off the cuff.

    Or do you mean to write something biographical, historical, boring?

    Or is their another option(s)?

    Something that has just leapt into my head though is Forrest Gump - absolutely fantastic film and he used tons of historical figures, even if he didn't actually name them.
     
  5. CyberFD
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    CyberFD Member

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    If a vampire slaying Abraham Lincoln is a thing, I'm pretty sure you're safe.
     
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  6. Dante Dases
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    Dante Dases Contributing Member Contributor

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    Allow me to recommend you The Damned United, the fictionalised account of Brian Clough's 44 days at Leeds United in 1973. Biographical? Yes. Historical? Yes, sort of, with certain inaccuracies. Boring? Not in a million years. As a character study it was fascinating, and a great insight into Old Big 'Ead's mindset. Brilliant use of real-life figures and real-life events to create a 'non-fiction' novel.
     
  7. spklvr
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    spklvr Contributing Member Contributor

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    Seconded :p

    I agree with everyone on that it really depends on how you write them. The only thing I would like to add that hasn't been said is that using real historical people might make readers feel dumb and/or unable to really get the story if they don't know who they are (speaking as someone who slept through most of her history classes).
     
  8. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    good point!
     
  9. stanislav
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    stanislav Member

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    Karwedsky,

    the book I like to read most are the books with real, historical people treated as a novel heroes. Let me mention "War and piece", my top five book to which I get back every now and again. Or "This thing of darkness", the book I have read couple of years ago but still have it in the back of my mind. The question for you is - do you have a new thing to tell us about the people you want to write about or about the impact they had made to the world? New insight, something different than facts from history books written by the winner? If you check all boxes I will read your book, if you write it well I be your fan.
     
  10. Bellhammon
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    Bellhammon New Member

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    In my opinion, it depends on the personality you give them. If you described George Washington as a pothead, I would lose interest. However, if you did the same for John Lennon I would respect it. I believe their needs to be history research on the character to decide their personality. If you make it believable or at least interesting, I will in turn be interested as well.
     

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