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7 Tips for Fictionalizing Real Historical Characters

When to retell history, when to imagine new scenarios, and who’s safe to use as a subject—author Gill Paul shares 7 tips for fictionalizing real historical characters.

Real historical characters have crept into my last 10 novels—sometimes in walk-on parts, sometimes as a friend of the main character, sometimes uninvited, and, more recently, as the chief protagonists. I want to understand why they behaved the way they did, so I stick very closely to the facts, while giving myself permission to invent scenes, dialogue, thoughts, and feelings for them.

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It’s fun to sit down at my desk in the morning and pretend to be Jackie Kennedy, a Romanov grand duchess, Lady Evelyn Herbert, or Dorothy Parker. It definitely influences my mood, as I’m sure my partner would testify.

Here are seven things I have learned over the years about fictionalizing real people:

It’s harder if your subject is well known

When you choose an iconic character about whom multiple biographies have been published, there’s a ton of research to sift through. You need to be ruthless about what you leave out and wrestle the essential facts into a narrative arc with dramatic tension, so the novel is not just a list of things that your hero or heroine did. Sure, you can invent scenes, but you have less wiggle room with the well-known if you want to create a convincing portrait.

In my new novel, The Manhattan Girls, I have four real protagonists: one famous (Dorothy Parker) and three less famous (Jane Grant, Winifred Lenihan, and Peggy Leech). I mostly kept to the facts when writing about Dorothy but wrapped the other three narratives around hers to give the novel a shape with a forward trajectory.

It's easier if you choose a specific area of the subject’s life and a narrow time frame

In The Manhattan Girls, I focus on the women’s friendships with each other, so it begins on the night in 1921 when they decided to form a bridge group (true story). The men at the Algonquin Round Table are secondary to my plot, and including more about them, or about Dorothy’s writing, or her later life, would have made the novel unwieldy.

When I wrote Jackie and Maria, I focused on the way Jackie Kennedy’s and Maria Callas’s lives gradually came to overlap through their relationship with Aristotle Onassis. He is the key, so I started the novel in 1957 when he met Maria at a party in Venice and took it from there. Any back story can be woven in where it’s needed, but keeping focus on the narrative arc helps you to make decisions about what to include and what to cut.

If you cheat on the big stuff, you need to get the details right

Frederick Forsyth once wrote “You can say that Hitler won the Second World War, but you can’t say that Green Park is on the Northern line.” (For those unfamiliar with the London Tube system—it’s not.) I’ve always followed this advice.

Jackie Kennedy and Maria Callas didn’t ever meet in real life, but I needed them to for the sake of my novel, so I bent the actualité. At the same time, I made sure the restaurants they dined in, the planes they flew on, the perfume they wore, their clothes, and any elements of the setting mentioned were authentic to the era. A few telling details will reassure readers that you’ve done your homework so they can enjoy the story without googling to check up on you every five minutes.

7 Tips for Fictionalizing Real Historical Characters

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Always beware the living

You can’t libel the dead, but you should be aware of relatives or side characters who might still be around. In The Affair, I wrote about the making of Cleopatra in Rome in 1963, and included as a minor character a production assistant called Rosemary Matthews, who was having an affair with the director, Joseph Mankiewicz.

It was 50 years ago and I thought I’d been through the cast and crew list with a fine-tooth comb, so imagine my shock when I got an email from Rosemary after publication! Fortunately, she liked the book or I could have been looking at a lawsuit, especially under British law, which is stricter on libel than in the U.S.

You also need to be wary of quoting too much from printed sources, which remain in copyright for 70 years after the author’s death.

Write the story you want to write

I know some historical fiction authors get in touch with living relatives of their subjects, and these connections can prove very rich and fruitful. I have a background in nonfiction publishing, where I ghost-wrote autobiographies for celebs, and I experienced family interference in these books that curtailed the stories and meant some of the most interesting parts had to be cut.

My view is that it’s hard enough turning real life into a novel without the added complication of descendants who want to have their say—and frequently don’t agree with each other. But this is an individual decision for each author.

7 Tips for Fictionalizing Real Historical Characters

Choose subjects you like and/or admire

You’re going to be spending a lot of time with them! I’ve written about women who were vilified by the press in their era—Wallis Simpson and Maria Callas spring to mind—but my approach was to peel away the abrasive layers and find the women I would have liked to spend time with.

Once you understand what makes someone the way they are, it’s hard to dislike them. But I might want to give them a good shake from time to time (looking at you, Dorothy!).

Readers appreciate an author’s note

Personally, I often read these first in other authors’ novels, even though they can contain spoilers. I want to know before I start how much of what I’m about to read is true. And although the words “A Novel” on the front cover excuse much, I don’t want to be accused of falsifying history, so I always confess at the end what’s fact and what’s not.

Can you write a novel in which Hitler meets Napoleon for afternoon tea? Absolutely. Or one in which Eleanor Roosevelt does a few lines of coke with Princess Diana? Why not? Anything can happen in fiction, and frequently does. Every author who includes real characters in a novel takes a slightly different approach. Some are even brave enough to write in first person, which I haven’t tried yet.

Why write biographical novels? For me, they bring fresh and engaging insights by going further than conventional biographies can go in presuming to tell us what the subject was thinking and feeling. I love reading them, and I love trying to get inside the head of someone who lived a dramatic life in the past. If it occasionally makes me unpredictable to live with, I’d say that’s a small price.

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