5 Considerations for Writing About Historical Figures in Fiction

Historical fiction author John Thorndike shares five considerations he's learned to keep in mind while writing novels about historical figures.
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Historical fiction author John Thorndike shares five considerations he's learned to keep in mind while writing novels about historical figures.

Not everyone from the past carries equal weight, notariety-wise. Some characters are far more famous than others, and demand more delicate treatment. If Abraham Lincoln or Marilyn Monroe appears in your novel, you’d do best to tread lightly, for so much has been written about them already. The better-known the person is, the more circumscribed our inventions must be. It would never work to create some passionate affair for Marilyn out of whole cloth, and put it in a book.

In my novel A Hundred Fires in Cuba, I invent an affair for Camilo Cienfuegos, one of Fidel Castro’s rebel commanders. What makes this possible is that few people in the U.S. know anything about Camilo. With Fidel it’s a different story, and when I write about him I’m fully alert to historical fact. His speeches have been recorded, his relationships chronicled, his quirks exposed. In my book, when the fictional Clare Miller wishes to photograph him, he challenges her. “‘Doing what?’ he says. ‘They have photographed everything already. They have taken pictures of me playing baseball, playing ping pong, fishing, holding my gun, eating breakfast, eating dinner, signing papers, even sleeping in a chair. What else can there be?”’ Well, there’s always something, and Clare has her own slant: She asks to photograph him with his nine-year-old son Fidelito, who at the time is little known to the world.

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Writing about minor historical characters may give us more freedom to invent things they said or did, but as a rule, all will go smoother if we stay within the confines of history. We can add to the past, but not change it. I give Camilo Cienfuegos an affair he never had, but otherwise follow the facts and chronology of his life as closely as I can. A novel is full of inventions—lies, you could say—and lies in books can be as delicate as in real life. To pull off the deception, in both cases, it helps to stay as close to the truth as possible.

What’s fictional should feel like fact. A novel must ring true, and this sometimes takes precedence over a slavish obedience to what actually happened. Take Michael Chabon’s novel Moonglow, which he based on extended talks he had with his grandfather shortly before he died. Moonglow is a compelling book, but the reader soon sees that it’s also, in Chabon’s own words, a “pack of lies.” His grandfather’s tales may have spurred him to write the book, but in the end he lit out on his own, creating plenty of details, and most likely whole scenes. All of this worked fine for me. Most novels are a cocktail of remembrance and invention, and this one springs out of the author’s family past into a fully-fleshed—which is to say, fully-imagined—account of his grandfather’s life. As far as I’m concerned, Chabon can take us anywhere he wants with the story. He’s not contradicting any history you or I know anything about. His historical figure is so “minor” that he can tell whatever tale he pleases.

I may be biased on this topic, for my next book will tell the story of my mother’s life. I don’t know enough to make it a memoir, so I’ll anchor the book on what I know about her past, and invent the rest. I’ll try, always, to stay close to the truth of her being.

Our genre is historical fiction, and no matter how honorably we keep to the facts, of course we’re going to make things up. This is particularly true with dialogue, for even if recalled by someone who was present at the time, not every line is going to be remembered correctly. If I quote something a friend said yesterday, I’m apt to get parts of it wrong. A remembered conversation is in part a made-up conversation, and as close as we hold to the truth, there’s an element of fiction to it.

I yield to this. I let fact and fiction merge on this level because it works, and because there’s no way around it if we wish to have our characters talk. When I read Mary Carr’s evocative memoir The Liar’s Club, I’m sure that some of it has been invented. The adult Carr cannot have remembered in such detail the conversations she reports from when she was five years old. The best we can do with dialog is to recreate conversations that evoke the truth of the moment.

When writing a plot-centered book filled with action, we’d better stick close to the facts. But if emotions rule the book, if we’re dealing with stories of heartache and doubt and exultation, the truth is going to be more hidden, more malleable. I can’t change the outcome of Castro’s invasion of Cuba, but I feel free to explore—and invent—the emotional interchanges among Clare, Camilo, and their precocious daughter.

Certainly a book can be founded on the emotional lives of its characters, and also spill over with action. Two of my favorite series are the Poldark novels by Winston Graham, set in Cornwall around 1800, and the Aubrey-Maturin seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian. In these books the characters live charged and tumultuous lives that fit smoothly within the glove of history. Indeed, they are prime examples of how a vibrant historical setting can work closely with intimate revelation. I like reading about both, and the combination has often eased me into the heart of a great book.

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John Thorndike read a thousand novels as a child and always wanted to write one. After four desperate years at a New England prep school, he went to Harvard, studied night and day, wrote some fiction, took an MA at Columbia, then lit out for Latin America. He spent two years in the Peace Corps in El Salvador and two, with his wife, on a backcountry farm in Chile. Eventually he settled with his son in Athens, Ohio, where for ten years his day job was farming. Then it was construction, but always he wrote. His first two books were novels, Anna Delaney’s Child and The Potato Baron. His first memoir, Another Way Home, speaks of his wife’s schizophrenia and his life as a single parent. His second, The Last of His Mind, chronicles his father’s year-long descent into Alzheimer’s. The Washington Post named this a Best Book of 2009, and Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, called it “a beautiful book.” Thorndike’s latest novel, A Hundred Fires in Cuba, is set in Havana and Miami during the early years of the Cuban Revolution, and he’s at work on the next, a half-fictional evocation of his mother’s life. Visit him at https://johnthorndike.com/.

Online Course: Writing Historical Fiction

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Whether history is a backdrop to your story or the focus of the story itself, this workshop will provide you with the tools to find the facts you need, organize the data in a functional manner, and merge that data seamlessly into your novel. Discover the level of historical data to include as a function of a particular writing goal. Learn more and register.

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