Historical Musings #78: Real people or fictional?

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction! This month, I’m going to look at two different kinds of historical novel – those that insert fictional characters into historical settings and those that focus on real historical figures. The second type of book is sometimes referred to as a ‘biographical novel’ and ranges from Robert Graves’ I, Claudius to Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen. I read and enjoy all sorts of historical fiction, but I know some people like their novels to be completely fictional while others prefer to read about real kings, queens, artists, musicians, politicians etc, so I’m interested to hear your thoughts!

I’m happy to read either of these kinds of book and they both seem to be equally popular, although I’m aware that a lot of readers don’t like reading fiction about real historical figures and would rather read non-fiction about them instead. Personally, I often seem to struggle to digest information through non-fiction, which is why I prefer to get to know historical figures in fictional form first and then use that as a starting point to find out more. I think if I’d just read a non-fiction biography of Thomas Cromwell, I would have forgotten half of what I’d read by the time I finished the book, whereas his story as told in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy has stayed with me. I know, though, that Wolf Hall only gives me one author’s interpretation of Cromwell’s character and that to get a full picture I would need to explore as many versions as possible, both fictional and factual. We also need to consider an author’s personal prejudices, their target audience or the information and sources available to them at the time of writing. Just look at Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III!

There are some obvious advantages to an author in writing about fictional characters – more freedom to invent personalities, dialogue and storylines without having to worry about readers saying, “but that never happened” or “she would never have said something like that”. However, these fictional stories still need to be believable and plausible within the context of the historical period in which the characters are living. And while some authors populate their entire book with imaginary characters only, others include a mixture of real and fictional. In some books, the interactions between the two feel natural and convincing (in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, for example, her fictional characters mix seamlessly with Mary, Queen of Scots, Ivan the Terrible and John Dee, to name just a few), while others don’t feel quite right to me (I didn’t like seeing Prince Philip appear in Kate Quinn’s The Rose Code, a book I otherwise loved).

In general, I’m much more comfortable reading about historical figures from previous centuries rather than people who have only recently died or are even still alive, as Prince Philip was at the time the Kate Quinn book was published. I’m also not very keen on books that put real people into completely imaginary situations, for example the current trend for using historical figures such as the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens or Josephine Tey as detectives in mystery novels. I know a lot of people love these, but they don’t really appeal to me.

What is your opinion on this? If you’re reading a novel set in the past, do you prefer to read about real or fictional characters – or both?

57 thoughts on “Historical Musings #78: Real people or fictional?

  1. Charlotte B says:

    Both. I, unlike you maybe, get nervous of the emotional roller coaster a fictionaized representation could bring on, so I tend to do the opposite. I read the non-fiction first and if I feel interested and able to handle it, fiction.

    • Helen says:

      I hadn’t thought of it that way, but yes, I can see how reading some non-fiction first could prepare you for the emotional impact of the fictional version!

  2. Cyberkitten says:

    A tricky subject! Although I like both sides of the equation I can understand the issues. Using real historical characters in real history has to be limiting for the author and predictable for the reader – so can have the risk of being, at least potentially, boring. Plus if the real character is well known (and especially if loved) there’s the problem of having them behave ‘out of character’. I think the best mix is having a fictional character being the central focus of the plot but with the real characters only playing minor walk-on parts and with the real historical events being the backdrop to the fictional story.

    Using real historical characters outside their ‘roles’ (as detectives in your example) is a bit silly/lazy I think. It’s using someone’s fame as a hook rather than creating an interesting fictional character from whole cloth.

    You can certainly get a good ‘feel’ for an era or a particular historical character from a fictional representation, but I also like to read non-fiction too to get the real story (as far as we know it). Although the two tend to mix in my head which isn’t always a good thing!

    • Pam Thomas says:

      I agree, I make a point of avoiding those mystery stories where a real character is the ‘detective’ – as you say, silly and lazy. Another trend I dislike, for much the same reasons, is the fashion for taking characters from classic books and continuing their stories. Jane Austen is particularly plagued by this. There’s one notable exception – ‘Longbourn’, by Jo Baker, which covers the events of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as seen from the servants’ hall, and which is a splendid book with a lot to say. The rest, I’m afraid, is just glorified fan-fic.

    • Helen says:

      That’s a good point about books using real historical characters being predictable or boring. I’ve read a lot of books about the Tudors, for example, so now unless the author has found a different or unusual angle, I don’t see much point in reading about them again as I’m not learning anything new. I love discovering books about lesser-known historical figures who haven’t been written about countless times before.

  3. Silvia says:

    Like you, real characters from long gone eras are better than from more recent eras. Fictional characters are good. The new trend, as Cyberkitten says, sounds silly/lazy. All in all, it also has to do with the quality of the book.
    Something funny about me it’s that I dislike historical fiction set during the XXth century wars, specially WWII, I prefer just fiction but written by writers who lived at the times. Books like slaughter house 5, Cancer Ward, Catch 22. I think fiction, and not historical fiction, or non fiction, can be more interesting. But it’s a preference.

    • Helen says:

      I don’t feel very comfortable reading about people who lived recently, particularly if they have family members who are still alive. I do enjoy historical fiction set during WWII, but I agree that fiction written by authors who lived at the time can be more interesting as they can draw on first-hand experiences and memories that modern authors can’t.

  4. margaret21 says:

    I don’t think you can beat good fiction for setting a historical figure in context. It’ll be partial of course, and it may be a good idea where possible to find more than one version of Our Hero/ine’s story. Apart from the Wolf Hall trilogy, recent stand outs have included Cecily, by Annie Garthwaite, and Joan by Katherine J Chen. By the way, I remember years ago (gosh, probably 20 years ago!) our book group being sent copies of a Dorothy Dunnett to review, and not one of us managed to plough our way through to the end. I have not, of course, tried since.

    • Pam Thomas says:

      Dorothy Dunnett is my favourite author. You’ve missed a massive treat. Try again, you may find you think differently now.

        • Pam Thomas says:

          Make sure that whichever of the two series you choose, you start with the first book (sounds obvious, but a lot of people didn’t), and give it several chapters before you decide it isn’t for you. DD writes dense, allusive, complicated books, but her characters are vivid and alive, and true to their times – and, unlike many historical novelists, she has a strong sense of humour.

  5. Pam Thomas says:

    I definitely prefer it when the main characters are fictional. Speaking as a writer, it gives you so much more scope with your story. As a reader, you don’t know how it ends, so you’re keen to discover what happens. And there’s less chance of your tale being full of cliches. If I see one more book on the shelves of my library about one of the six wives, I think I’ll scream! Other historical characters and periods are available, I believe.

    • Helen says:

      I can definitely see the attraction from an author’s point of view of working with fictional characters – it must give you much more freedom. And yes, there are only so many ways the stories of the six wives can be told. It’s a shame when there’s so much choice of other things to write about!

  6. C. M. Acosta says:

    Your question of real individuals in imaginary settings reminds me of the Austen as sleuth series by Stephanie Barron. I avoided picking up one of these from the beginning, but finally read a few of the later ones including the last published, which brought me to her first in the series. While I could never agree that the voice or style of Austen was captured for more than one sentence (no one writes like Austen, and she wouldn’t have written in first POV), the pleasure of reading these mysteries for me came from already knowing about the Austen family and her many characters and plotlines and observing how Barron uses these, through allusion and invention. The historic figures from the Napoleonic era also come to life crossing the fictional characters in clever ways. I could not for a minute consider the Austen realized in this series as close to the real woman, but was able set that aside and enjoy the metafiction.

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t read Stephanie Barron’s Austen series but I’m pleased to hear you enjoyed them. Although the idea of using real people as sleuths doesn’t appeal to me much, I know I’m probably missing out on some good books! I did love Gill Hornby’s two recent novels about the Austen family, Godmersham Park and Miss Austen. Have you read those?

      • C. M. Acosta says:

        I did read Hornby’s Cassandra novel and am now finishing Godmersham Park. The latter I think misses the mark. It channels the mood and pathos of Bronte and fails as an Austen inspiration. Somehow the restrictions of Anne Sharp’s place in society, especially as a spinster, restrict the novel from connecting its characters, opening its narrative spirit and energy into a full world of the early nineteenth century. Which makes me appreciate Austen all the more.

          • C.M. Acosta says:

            Well, I don’t want to sound harsh about the novel. I think Hornby is an elegant writer. In certain ways and places this novel in its arc and story events doesn’t click for me. Maybe I’m too much of a purist in reading Austen’s novels and so expecting a different sensibility and narrative tone. It was well-received of course.

  7. Janette says:

    I love historical fiction about real characters. I was brought up on Jean Plaidy’s novels and the Wolf Hall Trilogy is just brilliant. Like everything else, there’s good and bad and a lot of it is subjective. I’m not a great of Philippa Gregory but I know that she is incredibly popular.
    I do enjoy some novels where real people have been given fictional histories. Nicola Upson’s series featuring Josephine Tey is incredibly well written but the many Jane Austen spin offs don’t do anything for me.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I can enjoy any kind of historical fiction, as long as it’s well written with characters I care about. I have heard a lot of good things about the Nicola Upson series although I’ve never been tempted to try one.

  8. GoAnnelies - In Another Era says:

    Great discussion. I like both, as long as the historical setting feels right. The burning chambers books from Kate Mosse for example feature a fictional family but in the middle of the religious wars in France. There is space to add drama to the family intrigues without harming the real events.

    If I do read about historical figures I tend to prefer that the story is told from a fictional character and not directly from the historical person himself. Books about Anne Boleyn for example, if it’s told from Anne herself it’s usually a bad book :). A good example here is Fremantle’s ‘A Queen’s gambit’ where I fell in love with the fictional Dot but the book is about Katheryn Parr. Joanna Hickson and Carol McGrath apply the same technique. Although they also sometimes offer a perspective from the historical figure.

    But there are exceptions. As mentioned above Cecily was great, and Wolf Hall of course. I believe I’m that picky on this subject. As long as they historical context is done justice.

    • Helen says:

      I agree – both types of book can be equally good, but the most important thing is that the historical setting feels believable and accurate. And yes, it can be more interesting to read about historical figures from a fictional character’s perspective – I enjoyed Fremantle’s Queen’s Gambit too.

  9. Susan R Suing says:

    I have a degree in History, but some of the best books I’ve read that bring historical people to life are fictional. The best authors take historical fact and weave their stories into that. You have mentioned two of them: Dorothy Dunnett (the best of the best, especially in her House of Niccolo series) and also Hillary Mantel.) In any situation, a good author puts dialogue in the mouths of the characters and I think “Right on! That’s exactly what I would have said if it had been me!” But there is excellent advice in the comments above: Know history and always start from the beginning of any series.

    • Helen says:

      I prefer Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, but I do love the Niccolo books too (and King Hereafter). I agree that dialogue really needs to feel believable and appropriate!

      • Susijo says:

        I know you prefer the Lymond series to the House of Niccolo books. I feel as though we had an opportunity to grow through history with Nicholas. We “lived” with him from the age of 18 through, I think, his 42nd year. We saw him grow from a young man to a very good and strong man through his experiences. His character was much more amenable; he got along with so many different types and kinds of people through his adventures. On the other hand, unfortunately, Lymond came across predominantly as a very haughty personality (through all the books) who could never quite bring himself down to other levels – especially when it came to the woman he married to save her from a bad reputation. Oh, what pain he must have born through his love for her! Sorry; I’m being sarcastic. Nicholas knew pain, too, through a character that was never quite worthy of him. But, they are all still good books to read more than once. I know the series came out decades ago, but I wish there would be more comment on them.

        • Pam Thomas says:

          I don’t know if you’re aware, but there’s a thriving online and actual community of Dunnett fans, including a website (https://dunnettcentral.org/), facebook pages, a magazine, Whispering Gallery, which is published four times a year and features relevant articles, reviews and discussion about the books, and Gatherings all over the world. I’m going to the Centenary Gathering (Dunnett was born in 1923) in Edinburgh in April. All the comment you could wish for!

          • Susijo says:

            Thank you for the information. Last September I traveled from the U.S. to Scotland with my daughters and was disappointed to find very little on D.D. I asked in the bookstores, etc. But I did see many of the sights that dealt with Nicholas’ adventures and know the history behine them. It just takes a little imagination. I have to say that I have read historical fiction since her books but she has spoiled me. Thanks again.

          • Susijo says:

            Thank you for this information. I live in the U.S. and traveled to Scotland last September with my daughters. Lovely time; lovely country; lovely people. But I could not find anyone who “knew” of Dorothy Dunnett. I visited as many sites as possible that were listed in her books; i.e. Linlithgow Palace, etc. I think she has spoiled me for other authors; they are always compared to her. P.S. This is my second reply; the first one disappeared in an instant somehow. But you might get it somewhere.)

  10. Lisa says:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading through the comments and seeing the various opinions. I prefer my historical fiction to be about fictional characters. Real people appear, but as supporting characters so to speak, as in Dorothy Dunnett’s books – though I suppose King Hereafter is an exception, if she based it on the “historical” Macbeth.

    I really dislike the fashion for turning real people into detectives. I first saw it with Jane Austen mysteries, and now I see the Brontes are having their turn. I am particularly bothered by the series centered around the Mitfords. That seems too recent, and I understand other real people are used in the stories as well.

    • Helen says:

      Using real people as detectives just seems a strange idea to me, but I know a lot of people love those books. I agree that the Mitfords are a bit too recent!

  11. setinthepast says:

    I like biographical novels, largely because the people whom they’re about tend to have been at the centre of the major historical events, but I can’t stand it when people write about real historical figures but change the facts, especially when they don’t even bother to explain in a foreword or afterword that the book isn’t historically accurate. Philippa Gregory, I’m looking at you! But there are lots of really good biographical novels out there.

    I’ve never watched Bridgerton. The thought of a Madonna song playing during a Regency ball is too much for me :-).

    • Helen says:

      I don’t mind a few facts being changed if there’s a good reason for it, but I agree that there needs to be an author’s note explaining why they’ve done it. I’ve never fancied watching Bridgerton anyway, but the music would be the final straw!

      • Carmen says:

        That was exactly what bothered me to no end with Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Playing ‘I Want Candy’, are you kidding?! That was too much!

  12. Julé Cunningham says:

    Both! I especially admire those writers who combine real and fictional characters well, so difficult to pull off, but Dunnett and Mantel were absolute masters of it. Well, absolute masters period really.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I like both too. I agree that Dunnett and Mantel were excellent at combining historical and fictional characters and making their interactions feel believable.

  13. Calmgrove says:

    Language, manners, beliefs – all these should ideally be in place in an historical novel for me to suspend disbelief, especially if I’m not to be discouraged from continuing. Anachronisms really are my bête noir in supposedly serious novels, as they break the spell; if it’s spoof, parody or broad comedy I’m less critical, but I have to be in the mood for it. So I tend to stick to alternative history where the rules can be changed – just so long as they’re consistent!

    • Pam Thomas says:

      I’ve read quite a few books with glaring anachronisms – Michelangelo and Leonardo sitting down to a dish of pasta with tomato sauce springs to mind, or people in WW2 buying second class stamps, or the egregious example of a heroine going to a performance of ‘Pygmalion’ two years before George Bernard Shaw was even born (the perpetrator of that particular anachronism had a history degree from Oxford University, which makes me wonder about the standard of teaching there). And you’re right, the author of a historical novel, just as in a fantasy novel, is engaged in world building. Get it wrong, and the illusion is smashed.

    • Helen says:

      Anachronisms can ruin an otherwise good book, but over time I’ve come to know which authors to avoid and which I can rely on to get things right (as far as possible). I don’t read much alternative history, but obviously that allows a lot more flexibility – although, as you say, the worldbuilding still needs to be consistent!

  14. Lory says:

    It doesn’t matter to me whether the characters are real or fictional, but if they are real historical figures it matters a lot to me how they are portrayed. It has to be plausible, and in accord with the historical record. I really don’t like it when real people are included, but the facts are seriously messed with — I think it would be better to invent some fictional characters in that case. Minor tweaks for literary reasons might be OK but I appreciate it when the author writes a note to explain what was changed.

    The “Jane Austen solves mysteries” books are another matter, they are just silly and don’t usually appeal much to me either. But I would not expect historical accuracy from them, obviously.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I’m happy with small changes if there’s a reason for them, but there really needs to be an author’s note to let us know which parts are factual and which aren’t. Sometimes I find that reading the author’s note can be almost as interesting as the book itself!

  15. whatmeread says:

    I don’t have an opinion about this per se, it just depends upon how well it’s done and whether I believe it and whether it seems as if the writer has done the research. Having said that, I don’t really like books that take an ordinary person and then have them meet famous person after famous person. I don’t think that’s likely except under certain circumstances.

  16. Carmen says:

    I prefer biographical fiction, but I like both. What I usually do while reading historical fiction is Wiki names, dates, or settings to see how much it’s real or imagined, then I compare, otherwise reading nonfiction would be too time consuming and, as you rightly point out, most of the meaty stuff may be lost to memory by the time I finish reading. C.W. Gortner does great bio fiction, while Anya Setton, Philippa Gregory, and (to a certain extent) Susanna Kearsley have perfected the blend of historical and ordinary characters.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I look things up online a lot too – although I try not to spoil the story for myself and often wait until I finish the book. I’ve read a few of Gortner’s earlier novels, but not his more recent ones. I love Anya Seton, though!

      • Carmen says:

        The Romanov Empress by C.W. Gortner is an excellent example of pure bio fiction done right. He nailed everything and I think all the characters were historical. The Master, The Testament of Mary, and The Magician, all by Colm Toibin were great examples too, though they weren’t strictly bio fiction per se.

        • Helen says:

          Thanks – I’ll try to read The Romanov Empress. I read The Magician last year and although I do like Toibin’s writing, I didn’t love that particular book. I’ll think about reading The Testament of Mary.

  17. Stephanie Martin says:

    I’m pleased to find so many people who share my feelings on this. I don’t mind accessory characters who are real people — the great Dorothy Dunnett does this well — but prefer not to have an historical person as protagonist. And yet — reading Margaret Irwin’s Young Bess at age 10 took me all the way to studying 16th century history in college! I strongly dislike detailed portrayals of recent or contemporary people in fiction (especially, as someone said, if their families will be exposed to it). Colm Toibin is a very fine writer, but when I read The Master (book group choice) I kept thinking, Henry James would hate this!

    • Pam Thomas says:

      I did a history degree specialising in the 17th century and the English Civil War (now more properly but long-windedly titled The War of Three Kingdoms) because I fell in love with Margaret Irwin’s Prince Rupert! And also ‘Simon’, by Rosemary Sutcliff. It’s such an interesting period, and comparatively neglected by fiction writers in comparison with those ****** Tudors!

    • Helen says:

      I read Young Bess just a few years ago and hadn’t expected too much from it, thinking I already knew everything I needed to know about Elizabeth I, but I really enjoyed it. I haven’t read The Master, but I’ve read Toibin’s recent book, The Magician, about Thomas Mann, and had similar feelings!

  18. jekc says:

    I quite like a mix in historical novels of fictional characters and people who actually lived. However, I do appreciate the dilemmas of including real people from the present or recent past in novels and am not terribly convinced by the argument that writers can achieve a greater truth through their fiction. I also like characters who are fictional but clearly based on real people, such as the artist, Brigstock, in Half of the Hunan Race by Anthony Quinn who bore more than a close resemblance to Walter Sickert. I find that quite enjoyable.

    • Helen says:

      I like a mix of real and fictional characters too, as long as their interactions feel believable. That Anthony Quinn book sounds interesting. I can’t think of many examples of books I’ve read with characters based on real people, but I’m sure there have probably been a lot!

  19. Margaret says:

    I like historical fiction to be set prior to the 20th century. I didn’t like seeing Prince Philip appear in Kate Quinn’s The Rose Code, either, especially when I read in her Author’s Note that she had ‘lightly fictionalized the real-life Osla Benning, and even worse that by the time of the Royal Wedding Osla Benning was already married, not pining after Prince Philip!

    • Pam Thomas says:

      There’s a theory that if a book is set less than 50 years ago, it’s not ‘historical’. And like most people here, I’m very doubtful about including real people in recently-set books, especially if they or their relatives are still alive. A book was published a year or so back which included the awful tragedy at Aberfan, and given that survivors and their families are still alive, it seems as if the author is mining other people’s grief for monetary gain, and that certainly leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’ve also noticed a trend for novels to be set around the Holocaust or concentration camps. If they’re telling a true story with the co-operation of the protagonist or their family, I don’t have a problem with that, but a book that employs the horrors of Nazi Germany as a colourful background for your characters’ adventures isn’t one I’d ever want to read (and I’ve come across a few).

    • Helen says:

      The Osla Benning thing in The Rose Code bothered me too, Margaret. I thought it would have been better to have invented a completely fictional character – or if she was going to use the real Prince Philip in the book, why not use the real Osla Benning as well and stick to the historical facts.

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