Writing Historical Fiction: The Cons of Writing About Real People

First of all, if you haven’t checked it out, take a little read of my other post, the pros of writing historical fiction about a real person. There are many pros, including the fact it’s one of my favourite kind of novels to read and we all know your main objective is to please me.

BUT there are also many cons to writing your novel about a real person, and guess what I’m about to go through them because balance is everything, and if I don’t balance it out I’ll feel weird.

Historical Fiction: Writing about real people

Con #1: An established timeline can be restrictive

The trouble with writing about real people is that their lives unfolded at its own pace. And that pace doesn’t always match up with the pacing in your story. Which is, frankly, rude.

Sometimes it can mean that you have huge gaps where nothing happens, or at least not anything that is interesting and relevant for the narrative you’re trying to create. In the White Queen, for instance, there’s several years where Elizabeth Woodville is popping out babies and her husband is ruling England. Philippa Gregory chooses to skip forward in time, but this isn’t always something that works within the space of your novel. The established time of your character can be really restrictive and difficult to square with the story you want to tell. Unless you start playing around with the facts, which takes us neatly to the next point…

Con #2: Your research needs to be spot on

Mess with the facts at your own peril. This is something that applies to all historical fiction really, because you could make up the story of a milkmaid called Jane in a small town you’ve invented called Piggleswade – but if it’s set in 1760, there will be plenty of readers who know full well who was on the throne, and what people wore and ate and that they definitely didn’t have cars.

This is intensified when you write about a real person, because not only are you trying to include all the facts about the time and place, but you have to get the facts right about the person. Especially if you choose to write about someone that people know a lot about, like Henry VIII, or Queen Victoria.

Con #3: People can be really precious about how they perceive people

Look, people think Churchill is a great guy, top war leader etc. If you write a novel that shows him as a racist Tory, some readers aren’t going to like it, solely because they like him. I hate it when a historical person that I like or admire or find interesting is portrayed in a bad way. (Especially if it’s two dimensional, but honestly that’s an issue with the way a story written).

Historians are weird. We like people from the past based on random things we read, despite all the bad stuff they probably do throughout their life. If you mess with their faves, there’s a high possibility that they won’t enjoy the story you’re trying to tell.

Con #4: Sources aren’t always super helpful

In my post on the pros of writing about real people I talked about how you can learn the basics about someone, and then develop their personal characteristics in your own way to create the character you need for your novel. Sometimes there is sweet FA in the sources, which can make it hard to get to grips with your character. Or the plot. You know why they did something, but if there’s not much about the human behind the name then it can be hard to figure out why they did what they did.

Con #4: The market is oversaturated

On the wikipedia article about cultural representations about Mary, Queen of Scots, it lists 17 different representations of her in literature. There’s definitely more, along with films, plays and TV shows.

This doesn’t mean you can’t write another novel about Mary, Queen of Scots, or any other historical figure who has been written about in many different ways, but it can be hard to write something original and fresh to excite your readers.

Bonus con# 6: Real people were dicks problematic

Real people make bad choices. Horrible choices. Real people can be mean, or cruel, or stupid, or racist. So how do you square that with the character you’ve created? How do you make that fit with the story you’re telling, and how do you keep your character likeable despite these choices?

It’s not impossible, and when it’s done right or well it’s what makes a cracking historical novel. But when your character has made a choice like taking the throne for themselves, unexpectedly, and you can’t show your reader how that man who never seemed to want power got there, you’ve lost them.

What do you think are the challenges of writing historical fiction? What do you struggle with, and what are the benefits that outweigh all of the horrible hair-pulling-out of the cons? Let me know in the comments below, lets chat!

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