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Using Real People In Your Historical Novels, by Anne Perry

It is a tremendous temptation to use real people in historical novels.  The famous, the infamous, the eccentric, cry out to get onto the pages. Perhaps the monstrous most of all; like Vlad the Impaler and Rasputin.  But they were real people, and the more recent ones may well have living descendents.  Do you want your grandfather  or your great grandfather on the pages of someone else’s novel?  It may be okay if they’re witty and brave and beautiful.  What if they aren’t?  What if you knew them, or a lot about them, and the word portrait is simply horribly inaccurate?  They don’t need to have been portrayed as guilty of a crime, just being callous or stupid.

And yet real people stride across the pages of history.  We love meeting them.  They make a story seem more alive, more  true.  And there is an enormous amount of information available at the touch of a button.  What did Charles of Anjou look like – circa 1278?  What did he wear?  Did he sit down to dictate his orders, or pace around the room?  Could he read and write?  (Many noblemen of the time left such unmanly duties to others.)  Pictures available – and he was very literate, wrote orders in quadruplicate (no carbon paper then) and paced around.

There is pretty vivid information about all sorts of people.  If they are not major characters, indulge yourself.

If they are major, but not point-of-view characters, you still have a certain degree of liberty.  You can say what they do, put words in their mouths, and still not attribute motives or thoughts to them.

If they enter your story, make sure they were or could have been, at the place you need, and at the time you need.  With major figures it is often known where they were.  An error could accidentally sabotage your whole storyline.

What liberties can you take, and how much can you invent?  That is very much a judgement call.  If it is historically accurate, either because it did happen, or it could have and fits in with their character as known, then you are fine.  The difficulty is when you attribute motive and put thoughts into the minds of real people.  Then a moral question arises.  You are real – would you like some future novelist to use you in that way?  I admit, I get enraged when people who barely know me decide they understand me better than I understand myself.  (It happens to writers, among others, occasionally.  ‘I know why you write so-and-so – No you don’t!)

I know that legally you cannot slander the dead, especially the long dead – but you certainly can morally.  How long dead?  A generation?  A century?  A millennium?  It is your call.

The other danger is that if you make someone a main character, the reader has to know them well, and care about them.  For that we have to know what they want, especially in your story.  And to care about them deeply, we have to understand why they want it, and what it means to them.  We have to know their hopes and fears, their dreams.  What makes them laugh or cry?  What in their childhood or youth makes them what they are today?  What do they think is really funny?  Or don’t they?  We can’t be invested in someone we don’t know.  Do you know your real historical character well enough for that?  Or can you safely invent it without trespassing on history?  Or more importantly, on your readers’ sense of history!  If you can – good luck!  Pick someone marvellous!  Have a ball!  (I want Joseph Fouche of the French Revolution – then Napoleon – then the restoration of the monarchy!  There’s a survivor!)


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Writing Historical Novels

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Enjoyed your piece on writing real people into historical novels. I have done it myself, with Bram Stoker (in MOON RISING) and Capt Smith (THE MASTER’S TALE) but I did so much research I felt I knew them. And I was very concerned to award them the benefit of any doubt regarding their actions. As you say, it’s a huge thing to do, with many pitfalls – but like HIlary Mantel, I feel their are many versions of history. We all have reasons for our actions – and WE think they are right reasons, no matter how wrong they may appear later, or to later generations.

    February 6, 2013
  2. I think one of the main reasons to use real historical persons as characters is that if we know about them in this day and age, then they were incredible characters in their day. They have built-in interest, backstory, drives, motives and conflict so it’s too tempting not to allow them into our tales. I used members of the first Royal Society, Charles II and Pepys in The Pyrate’s Sonne, and greatly enjoyed their company and input.
    Good post, btw. Cheers.

    February 6, 2013
  3. Anne, this is so useful! I have been working on a novel about Elizabeth Barrett Browning and your words make some of the problems I have been slowly overcoming a little clearer. They’re not just there for me; they are there! Of course I have read and loved several of your novels! Thank you! (I am also one of the contributors to the site.)

    February 14, 2013
  4. Staymaker is all about real people – the historical smugglers known as The Hawkhurst gang. As such, events were researched carefully, the novel follows what they did and how they ended up. The thing was, the history was more exciting and compelling than anything I could have woven.
    With someone Such as Blackbeard, Turpin, Wild or Blueskin, however, so many legends , myths and retellings have grown up over 300 years that separating the whole truth is harder.

    December 15, 2013

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  1. Month In Review with Steve Rossiter (February 2013) | Writing Historical Novels

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