Incorporating real live people or historical figures (real dead people) in your fiction is a decision that should be approached with thought and care.
I wouldn’t say I’m not in favor of it, but I’m wary of it. It’s one of those things that’s very difficult to do well, and often it doesn’t need to be done at all.
If you’re considering using a real historical figure as a character, ask yourself the following questions:
1. Does the character bring anything to the book that an original character would not, aside from the power of his/her name?
- If you’re bringing in a character to fill a “generic bad guy” or “generic love interest” or “generic comic relief” or “generic authority on a subject” kind of role, please create an original character instead. These sorts of characters fail when they’re used to cut corners and warm seats. If you’ve got Elvis in your story, there needs to be a compelling reason why he has to be Elvis and can’t be anyone else. If you’re using Elvis in your story because you’re banking on his reputation and history and the connotations of his name and his song titles to spare yourself the effort of creating that connotation from scratch, it will show.
If, on the other hand, the central plot of your book is something happening to William Shakespeare which is specifically tied in with the facts of his life, the text of his works, and the characters he created, no generic original-character playwright would be able to fit that role. In that case, an original character would be the choice that felt obviously derivative and untrue to the concept.
Shakespeare lends himself very well to fiction because there is plenty that has been documented about his life, but there are some very distinct gaps, too, which can be filled in neatly with fantasy and conjecture. Chasing the Bard by Philippa Ballantine is an excellent example.
Resist the urge to throw real people into your writing “by default”. If politics come up in your present-day novel, make the deliberate decision whether to mention the real heads of government or make up your own. Keep in mind that while mentioning real people grounds your novel in a reality that readers can relate to, it will also date it rather quickly. If those political figures are actual characters instead of plot-enablers and extras, evaluate your choice even more carefully.
2. In what light are you painting this character?
- There are three separate issues here:
a. Are you painting them in the kind of negative light that their representatives or their estate might object to? Be familiar with fair use and with libel. Make certain that you’re not opening yourself up for legal trouble.
b. Take care that positive treatment of the character doesn’t push too far, either. If you make them too powerful, wonderful or perfect, your writing will feel like fan fiction instead of literature. All characters have to be three-dimensional, conflicted and flawed to come across as genuine. If you can’t do that with your real person character, then they become a cardboard cutout just lending their reputation and name to your story. See question #1.
c. Are you treating them in a way that’s true to the image that we hold of them, or in a way that will sexualize them, demonize them, canonize them, or otherwise paint a picture that’s too difficult to reconcile with our existing connotation of them?
A real person or real historical figure comes prepackaged with a certain context and connotation. That’s why writers use them. Sometimes the opportunity to twist or pervert that pre-existing image is what may guide your choice to use a particular figure as a character, but if you’re going to do that: make sure you’re not doing it accidentally, make sure you’re doing it in a way that still fits the facts, and be aware that sexualizing or darkening the morality of a beloved role model — or turning a villain into a saint — may make the reader uncomfortable. Be careful if a certain amount of reader discomfort is your goal; be even more careful if it’s not.
3. How much is known about this character, and how much of that do you know?
- Another thing that real people bring to your manuscript when you utilize them as characters… is work. Research. Lots of it. For every person about whom facts are known, there will be experts and hobbyists who make it their business to know and uncover those facts. If you’re using a real person in your novel, it’s going to draw those people who have taken a deep interest in that character’s life and work. If you’ve gone to the extra effort to draw them in, don’t alienate them by getting your facts wrong. You will lose credibility with those readers who could have been your most avid fans, likely permanently.
Using reality in fiction requires a deep and intensive level of research, and you need to be willing commit yourself to doing that work as the price for using those characters. Even if Abraham Lincoln is only showing up for a few minutes of “screen time”, you’d best know what he wore, what he ate, his mannerisms and speech patterns, the sound of his voice, how old he is and what he’s experienced at that point in his life — and what he hasn’t yet — and what colloquialisms, products and technology he’d be familiar with at that point in his life. Anachronisms, at least unintentional ones, are your enemy.
Remember, too, that you’re not doing all this research so that you can throw in so much detail that it looks painted on. Wedge in too many facts and your writing starts to sound like a book report, not a story. It’s more important that you know them, so that you can write a smooth and believable representation.
After considering these three questions carefully, do you still need that historical figure in your novel? Are you willing to put in the leg work required to make it work? If so, then go for it, and good luck! …And remember to forward your research along to your editor.