Historical Characters in Fiction: To Exist or Not To Exist?

 

Caractacus, King of the Silures, delivered up to Ostorius, the Roman General, by Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes - print by F. Bartolozzi, British Museum

Caractacus, King of the Silures, delivered up to Ostorius, the Roman General, by Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes – print by F. Bartolozzi, British Museum

At the moment, somewhere inbetween using Nanowrimo to finish my paranormal novel and knitting small white and red stocking decorations for Christmas, I’m also writing my first historical novel, Daughters of Brigitania, that will (eventually!) be under the pen-name ‘Miranda Christon’. It’s going well, but I’ve found that, compared to the paranormal novels I put out, it’s going really well.

This isn’t me boasting, by the way. I’m just amazed at how much easier it flows. I don’t know if this has anything to do with the paranormal genre being something of a fluke/phase for me, and I’m supposed to be writing historical novels, but I suspect it also has something to do with the fact that the characters within the book (with some exceptions) actually existed. All other characters I’ve used in any book might hold traits of people I know, or actually be very similar to someone I’ve met, but they’re nowhere near real. Whereas with the historical characters, even if I have to use a bit of creative interpretation in their conversations and movements, there is also a solid basis to use for their character, their essence.

And sometimes it isn’t a lot to base them on, either. Take Cartimandua, one of my main characters. She was a client queen of Rome when they invaded Britain, and ruler of the Brigantes, the ancient British tribe who pretty much cornered the market on owning northern land in what is now England. All we know of her is literally summed up in two paragraphs, written by the Roman historian Tacitus, about 50 – 100 years after the events of her reign actually occurred. He’s pretty damning about her (as he is about Cleopatra, and I suspect, though I haven’t read his Annals and Histories cover to cover, about a few other women in charge as well. He didn’t seem to like the idea much). I’m also studying history at the moment, and the first thing we learn is that one source does not a conclusion make – in other words, he is putting his own spin on things. This makes the two paragraphs which are our only source for her life, pretty weak in terms of saying, “Yeah, this is how she was and when stuff happened. Fact.” But nevertheless, she did exist, she was a ruler of the Brigantes tribe, and she did exist in what is now the north of England.

As I’m writing, this does give me a certain basis to work from. By knowing what events occurred during her life, however accurate the times might be, I have a ready-made framework from which to pad out her story. I try to put myself in the mindset of an Iron Age ruler (because we’ve all been there, right? Ha, ha), and work out why those events happened. What other real-life events took place at that time? Who else was around her? What external events may have forced her hand in some situations? But then it also comes down to my own personal opinion, which I feel does have a bearing on how I’m going to portray her. I’m trying to be fair and balanced, but I’m wary of falling into the same trap as Tacitus did – for practically the opposite reasons – and creating a woman that I’m wholly sympathetic to without offering bias. But being able to refer back to the real-life events, historical knowledge from that time, and the little we know of how Roman writers thought, it’s possible to reconstruct something fair and balanced that helps with the writing. I’ve found this means there’s something gritty and permanent about the story once all of this is included, something that – in my humble opinion – doesn’t exist in a purely fictional novel. Because no matter how many people a fictional character is made up of, there’s nothing truly rooting that character down. And the ‘real, existing character’ doesn’t just apply to historical novels, of course.

So to go back to the original question – does writing about a historical person who actually existed make the writing easier? Yes, I believe it does. Because there’s a root for them, a template that writers can refer back to. We also have the indulgence of hindsight, and that allows us to look back over their decisions, and try to work out why they did such-and-such a thing. If it’s a fictional character, often this gets applied backwards. We want them to do a certain event, or make a certain situation happen, so we have to invent decisions for them that will fit. Real life doesn’t always include decisions that fit neatly, so this is – my hand firmly held in the air – something that can be worked into a purely fictional novel to create a story that is more realistic, I imagine. The reason I think this is that the method of working with hindsight for Cartimandua’s decisions is rubbing off on the characters I’ve invented around her, as well. (If I went with just those we know of, she would rule a tribe of three people, and that’s just silly). Because of her ‘real-life’ decisions, the invented characters suddenly also have a framework to work backwards from, like a vine gripping to a parent plant. When a situation happens that was unexpected, they have to change their plans. “Alrighty, then,” they say. “I guess we’ll put the pub crawl on ice, for now. The Romans are attacking. Drat.” Or something Iron Age-y.

So yes, having historical characters who actually existed doesn’t just make the writing better for them, it also applies to all the fictional characters around them. Mostly because a lot of the decisions made in real life throughout history would make a fictional book seem ‘implausible’, sometimes. So I’m going to try this with my paranormal stuff – I’ll make decisions for the characters, and they’re just going to have to work around it. Sod ’em.

 

Do you agree, or disagree with the idea of real-life characters having a better basis for writing? Can it be applied to purely fictional characters? Let me know what you think in the comments below, it’s always great to see what everyone thinks. 🙂

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