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Mixing Real People And Imaginary Characters In Historical Novels, by Michael White

When it comes to picking your characters for a historical novel you have almost as many possibilities as any writer writing in any other genre.

I’ve found the best approach is to blend real historical people with purely fiction characters forged from my own imagination. I then try to make them interact seamlessly, as though my fictional personalities had really lived in the time in which the story is set.

I do this for two reasons. First, if I were only to use real people I would be verging too close to historical non-fiction or else I would have to completely rewrite history (which is not a very popular option with readers). The other reason I do this is to allow for a different perspective to actual documented history.

I’m not by any means the only one to do this. In Michael Dobbs’ series of novels featuring Winston Churchill, the story is written from the perspective of a fictional servant of the prime minister. Similarly, Robert Harris uses the device of narrating the plots of his Roman novels Imperium and Lustrum from the perspective of a household slave, Tiro, who works closely with the lead character, Cicero, the Senator.

So what do we need from our ‘real life’ characters? Well that really depends upon the sort of historical fiction you are writing. In my first novel, Equinox, I featured Isaac Newton in the lead role. I did this for many reasons, not least of which was the fact that I had written a biography of the man some years earlier and so this was very helpful when it came to understanding how my lead character would behave. It was also a decision key to the type of novel I was writing. Newton was greatly enamoured with the occult and the black arts, and my novel was drenched in that subject matter, so he was a perfect fit.

Other writers sometimes choose to have as their main character a historical person who was not necessarily a famous person during their lifetime. I mentioned above the idea of using a ‘Zelig-like’ character to narrate and describe the goings on around a famous person such as Churchill or Cicero, but sometimes we can turn it around so that the lead role is taken by a person who once lived but was not famous and they are surrounded by the figures who loom large in our history books.

I did this with my third novel The Borgia Ring. I based my lead character on a catholic monk who travels to London to attempt to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. During the course of his journey he encounters the Pope, William Shakespeare and Elizabeth herself.

History is a vast canvas, and as a writer you have free rein to set your story wherever you choose, and you can people your tale with whomsoever you wish. It is a wonderful freedom, but sometimes the possibilities are too much and you have to hone in and really think about what it is you want to portray and from which perspective you wish to relate your plot.

History offers us the wonderful luxury of vast opportunity and choice. It takes discipline and insightfulness to know how to use the gift of time to our best advantage.


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EquinoxThe Medici SecretThe Art of MurderThe Kennedy Conspiracy     True Soldier GentlemenTreason at Lisson Grove: A Charlotte and Thomas Pitt NovelThe Mathematics of Love (P.S. (Paperback))

Writing Historical Novels

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. The fact is, that unless you’re writing about historical characters whose lives are extremely well documented, even your real characters will be largely fictional. The farther back you go in history the more this will be true. Ancient history is a well worn tapestry and the writer needs to fill in a lot of blank spaces to create a coherent picture. In my present wip my character, Gisco appears once in Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, and I work in that particular anecdote into my narrative. Otherwise the character is 99% fictional.

    October 20, 2013
  2. Many of the historical novels I’ve read use real people as supporting characters. The real person lends an air of authenticity to the story without taking away from the fictional story, such as Teddy Roosevelt’s role in “The Alienist.”

    October 20, 2013
  3. DP #

    I’d be interested to get some feedback on this.

    I’m in the planning stages of a novel, set some time in Ancient Rome. The character is a totally invented (non-famous) person.

    However, I’m contemplating not even having him interact with ANY political figures. If you look at modern-day fiction, many of the novels don’t even mention the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, there’s nothing about the president and who he’s spying on, and nothing about what Putin’s strategies to gain American intelligence. So why should should historical fiction necessarily be based around wars?

    It’s pretty tough to find a historical fiction novel based in the Ancient World that’s NOT about war.

    History isn’t just about wars. I think we’ve managed to simplify it to a certain degree. How many households in the U.S. have no clue what’s going on in Afghanistan? Many, many, many. So why is it that a household in Ancient Rome, or a household ancient Athens would have to be preoccupied with constantly being invaded by one nation or another?

    I wonder if this is one of the reasons that, perhaps, the genre has been ghettoized, if you will, and why many historical novelist complain about not being appreciated.

    Let me know what you think.

    November 27, 2013
  4. There’s a good reason why it is tough to find a historical fiction novel based in the Ancient World that is not about war, particularly one based in ancient Rome. The Romans from earliest times had a temple to Juno, the door of which was closed when the country was not at war. From the time of King Numa to the time of Augustus, the door of this temple was closed only once, in 235 B.C.

    November 27, 2013
  5. DP #

    Robinlevin … what does the Temple to Juno have to do with there not being any historical fiction novels set in Ancient Rome that are NOT about war?

    I’m not sure I follow you.

    November 27, 2013

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