Famous figures in historical fiction

How do you feel about famous figures in your historical fiction?

And no I don’t mean famous as in Scarlett O’Hara or Mr. Darcy, even though I can quote them and talk about them like they are real people.

I mean like King Charles II, or Abraham Lincoln, or the Duke of Wellington. What happens when they show up in your historical fiction and start interacting with the fictional characters?

In keeping with my post about my tolerance line for paranormal protagonists, I find that I am only comfortable with real-life famously prominent historical characters on stage in my novels up to a point.

 Any regency romance novel will have Prinny in the background somewhere, being fat and making one or two debaucherous remarks to the Heroine. I am fine with that, because that’s just it, he is in the background.

But when the author writes a whole conversation between Abraham Lincoln and the fictional main character of the novel about how Lincoln thinks he’s the best, gives him a medal, gives him a tour of DC, rides with him on the train to Baltimore, etc. it is too much for me.

I see famous historical figures as part of the background, part of the scenery to set the stage of the novel, but they can’t be given too much characterization. It feels fake. I feel sort of affronted that that famous person isn’t being respected and is being “made” to do and say things they didn’t actually do and we KNOW they didn’t since it’s a matter of famous public historical record!!!

Does that make sense? Like I said it can be done right but sometimes it feels wrong to me. Examples ahoy!

     1) On Secret Service,by John Jakes: although this book contained scenes with Lincoln, he followed my rule of being in the background with little or no interaction with the characters, just following high-level actions exactly how historical records portray him as doing.

BUT in the book Jakes does write a few scenes with Allan Pinkerton, head of the first US Detective Agency, and I was fine with that because I really didn’t know anything about Pinkerton, other than the name sounded familiar, so my suspension of disbelief wasn’t jarred at all by his actions or conversations.

     2) Savannah, by John Jakes: In this Jakes novel the mainly story follows a little 12 year old girl named Hattie. As a true “rebel” when she meets General Sherman in the streets of Savannah she kicks him in the shin! Hard! Then he invites to dine with him and they have a HIGHLY PERSONAL conversation about his son who died and how it makes him feel and he gets sort of teary.

That was just too much speculation on his character, it didn’t work for me.

     3) The Prince and Me: yes I mean the Disney film. I reeeeally didn’t like how they just MADE UP THE PRINCE.  Guess what, there IS a frickin REAL prince of Denmark and he his name is NOT Eddie, it’s Frederik, and he did not marry an American girl, and his father is not dying.

I also get annoyed with authors make up these tiny kingdoms in the Alps/Pyrenees/Russia/Persia so their heroine can be a lost princess or the hero a sheik, because for a moment there I doubt myself and think, wait is there REALLY a princess of Montalusia?

And those of you who know me in real life might guess why I think this, but my heart will only belong to one royal family of a tiny, real country: 

princess_charlotte

Monaco Royal Family: Princess Charlotte and brother Prince Andrea Casiraghi

Especially Princess Charlotte:

I have SUCH A HUGE CRUSH on her

I have SUCH A HUGE CRUSH on her

     4) The Other Boleyn Girl, by Phillipa Gregory: Even though this was CLEARLY a very fictional work for me, it still crossed my boundary line. Although Henry VIII was a background character, it personified Anne too much for my comfort level. Mary I didn’t really know much about, so like Pinkerton above, her scenes, thoughts, and actions didn’t affect me quite as much.

What books or movies marketed as FICTION haven’t portrayed a historical figure well for you?

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10 Responses

  1. I was totally with you on how it’s wierd to use historical figures in non-strictly biographical ways, until The Other Boleyn Girl. It never bothered me there-not sure why.

  2. sadly, i know almost nothing about historical fiction. BUT your girl crush makes me giggle in my pants. :)

    ps hope you’re at the beach reading soon

  3. I have not read the other books you refrenced here but since you chose to reference Phillipa Gregory, I wanted to say I am a huge Phillipa Gregory fan! It may be because my historical knowledge may need some updating I find that by offering those real people in fictional places it encourages people to find out the true background on them. For example, I didn’t want to read historical fiction but I started on Phillipa Gregory and realized how interesting King Henry was! As soon as I started her books, I started researching online, the true backgrounds of him and his wives and now I am a historical fiction fanatic. I read all her books regarding the royal family. I truly believe that these books will encourage young readers to research and become more interested in history, even if they are not up to the standards of others.

  4. i have a very highly trained Suspension Of Disbelief-Ometer. if the book is well written, the author can do just about anything he wants with any character in history, and i will blithely go along for the ride :-)

  5. what are you talking about… not liking movies/books that make up kingdoms? i know how much you heart disney’s princess diaries. long live genovia!

  6. Charlotte is WORKING those bedroom eyes at you. Just sayin.

  7. Art: it’s funny how selective our brains can be about things! I totally loved The Other Boleyn Girl and have re-read it, but still wince a little at a few of the scenes.

    mylittlebecky: sadface that you don’t like historical fiction, but hey, diversity is the spice of life!

    Danielle: I didn’t want to take up too much space in my post, but I definitely want to clarify that I loved reading The Other Boleyn Girl and thought Ms. Gregory was a great writer! I completely agree with you that historical fiction helps bring history alive and informs us on events and topics we otherwise would maybe have found too dry to research from a purely factual perspective.

    It’s just the liberties that authors sometimes take with historical figures’ personalities, dialogue and actions that sometimes don’t click with me. Looking at my 2009 reading list about 50% of what I read is historical fiction, so I love the genre, but not every scene works for me.

    Alice: i might have to train my suspension of disbelief a little harder, feed it some treats or something.

    bestest bestie: oh honey, sigh, i have to come clean with you. i was entertained by The Princess Diaries and thought it was a *supercute* movie, but deep down inside i was REALLY ANNOYED at the made up royalty from a fake country. sorry!

    lilu: she is smokin’! and gets to be a princess, not fair.

  8. I don’t know that I would classify the Gregory books in the same way, since the whole intention of the books was to fictionalize the actual events of Henry and his wives. The others I totally agree with, but I think she really did her research and tried to make it as accurate as possible. I haven’t read them at all but there’s a trilogy of books by Kevin Baker (Paradise Alley, Striver’s Row and Dreamland) that take real people and completely fictionalize parts of their lives. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but if I ever get around to reading them, I’ll let you know :)

  9. I want to love The Tudors, I really do. JRM is smoking, but he just doesn’t do it as Henry for me. I would much prefer Gerard Butler, but methinks the man is out of the BBC’s price range.

  10. Rachel: whoopsie, apparently including The Other Boleyn Girl in this post wasn’t my best idea.

    I definitely agree that it is very clear Gregory fictionalized their lives and that I was impressed at how historically accurate and detailed it was, but I didn’t fact check or anything. For the most part I loved the book, but maybe 5% of me cringed at some of the scenes with Anne about what she did (sketchy relationship with her brother, drugs, desparate measures to conceive) because my understanding is there are only rumors of these events.

    Olga:
    I KNOW RIGHT?!??! I mean come ON Henry VIII had RED hair and was over SIX FEET!!! He didn’t get fat until later in life but still, JRM playing him is laughably wrong. This is an EXCELLENT EXAMPLE of what I was trying to say in my post ;)

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