Real people as characters in fiction

One of the trends right now in mysteries is to have a real person, often a writer, “star” in the series as a sleuth. Examples: Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, Queen Elizabeth I.

While the Austen books are better than I would have expected, I think they would have been better yet had they not been associated with Austen at all.

It seems in most other media/genres the real people are more likely to be cameos than the stars.

So, what’s the appeal of these fictionalized real people? Do you like them? Does it throw you out of the story or draw you in? What are examples of it being done really well?

Alternative history writer Harry Turtledove does this, although the real people are often just cameos and played for laughs, or to demonstrate how different the alternative world is to our own; for example, in part of his timeline following the Confederate States of America surviving the Civil War (I think it’s that timeline, he has several) Richard Nixon is a used car salesman in California.

I think E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime incorporates historical figures of the era in which it’s set (early 1900s) exceptionally well, as does the Broadway musical based on the novel. I would say they’re more supporting characters though - better than cameos but less than stars.

I’m not much of a mystery reader, so I’m not familiar with the trend you’re talking about…but the idea of reading about Jane Austen solving mysteries sounds utterly absurd. It sounds a little like another current literary trend which I absolutely despise, the Wicked-inspired “The story of {insert name of classic novel}, except seen through the eyes of {minor character from said novel}.”

The Superhero, ‘famous story through the eyes of a minor characters’ sounds like the kind of writing exercise I had to do back in early to middle high school.

I remember having exercises like that, and also ‘write an extra few pages to the book’.

I thought of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist when I read the OP; that book features Theodore Roosevelt in his historical role as NYC’s police commissioner (as well as a number of other persons from NYC’s real past). They’re mostly very small parts, though – which I think is the right way to use a real person.

I imagine many authors use the technique because a historic figure comes pre-packaged with a number of benefits. Primarily, they’re interesting people to begin with (otherwise, they wouldn’t be historic) and don’t need much characterization. The attributes that an author does choose to add to that character help engage the reader more – it’s interesting to read about how a real person might react to a fictional situation. Finally, because many people are already familiar with the person, they’re likely to be familiar with the times in which he or she lived – which helps to ground the story in a more realistic environment while still providing the author with a lot of room for fictional embellishment.

Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club is a pretty good mystery featuring Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowe, all of whom are translating Dante’s The Divine Comedy when a series of ghastly murders strikes Boston – and only our poets can solve the case!

To me, though, historic figures also come pre-packaged with a lot of extreme downsides.

Take the Jane Austen mysteries I mentioned: We know Austen died when she was 42 and she was unmarried. We know, in fact, “what happens” in the larger arc of her story, whereas a new character modeled after Austen could fall in love, get married, have a child, live to 80, move to France, etc.

(Now that I think of it, that was my objection to the Star Wars prequels, too.)

The ultimate “real people” characters in fiction: To Your Scattered Bodies Go, by Phillip Jose Farmer.
We’re all in it!

The whole of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series is just exactly this; all the significant characters are historical. Just from memory:

Richard Francis Burton
Samuel Longhorn Clemens
Alice Hargreaves
Herman Goering

and so on.

Nope, unless he has done it in others, that scenario is in The Two Georges.

Kurt Vonnegut appears as himself, the author, in Breakfast of Champions, observing and (at one point) speaking to his characters.

That’s the one, they all kind of blend into one (ironically).

I quite like the Elizabeth I ones as they deal mostly with political murders and intrigues. It seems quite plausible to me in the days before an effective and independent police force that the reigning monarch would put together a group of trusted confidants to investigate these crimes on her behalf. Jane Austen somewhat less so - I can’t imagine how many murders would be plausibly occurring in her social sphere - it would be a bit Murder, She Wrote, don’t you think?

I can certainly see the appeal of casting historical figures in minor/supporting roles, as in The Alienist (Gordon, that was the first book I though of too). In a well-researched historical setting, it would be illogical if the characters didn’t come across someone “famous” at some point. But historical characters as heroes? For the most part, I don’t get it either.

Mysteries have been doing this for decades. George Baxt started with the Dorothy Parker Murder Case and then moved it to Hollywood with at least a dozen major movie stars as stars. Peter Heck does a series of Mark Twain mysteries. Robert Lee Hall does Benjamin Franklin. Elliott Roosevelt (or his ghostwriters) did a long series about his mother, Eleanor Roosevelt, as a detective. Peter Lovesey did books about Bertie, Queen Victoria’s son who was Prince of Wales before becoming King Edward VII. Steve Allen had ghostwriters write a series of mysteries starring Steve Allen. S. S. Van Dine wrote the *Gracie Allen Murder Case *back in the 1930s.

Almost all of these were influenced by the use of Sherlock Holmes as a character. Starting with 1974’s *The Seven Percent Solution *by Nicholas Meyer, which pairs Holmes with Sigmund Freud, authors have paired Holmes with every celebrity of the past century. There must be thousands of examples by now, maybe thousands individually of Holmes and of celebrities. They’re all fantastically popular, which seems to indicate that most people really like seeing real-life famous names mixed into their fiction.

Like absolutely else connected with fiction, I like it when it works well and dislike it when it doesn’t.

That was your objection to the Star Wars prequels? As much as I hate using the word “methinks”, well, methinks the lady doth not protest enough!

As far as the OP goes, I suppose it depends. Many of the examples given sound fine to me. However, one movie I remember had a “writer” named Geoffrey Chaucer, that bore no resemblance at all to his namesake. Why then call him Chaucer? It was just jarring and seemed aimed at morons.

The Flashman novels feature just about every historical figure from the 19th Century, from Otto Bismarck to Kit Carson to Rajah Brooke, and nobody can top Fraser when it comes to presenting real historical men and women as fully rounded human beings, both their good and bad aspects, albeit presented through Flashy’s cynical and sneering POV: if you want to get a feel for what Goerge Armstrong Custer was like as a man {histrionic, devious, conceited, nepotistic and rash to the point of lunacy}, read Flashman And The Redskins.

I was going to mention Flashman, but I think it is a little different than the OP is talking about. Flashman belongs to the genre of historical novels where [invented character] is a witness to (or involved in) [real historical event]. The OP’s example is more about [real historical character] involved in [entirely fictional adventure].

There are lots of great historical novels of the first kind, but I am having trouble thinking of good examples of the second kind. I suppose I could mention the Judge Dee mysteries; there is a long history of detective novels in China, which often involve a famous historical jurist as the crime-solver. A Dutch scholar named van Gulik wrote a series of detective novels in English featuring a district magistrate named Judge Dee, a real historical figure from the T’ang dynasty. The novels are terrific, but I don’t think many people would have heard of Dee *outside *of the novels.

Stephen King appears as himself in The Dark Tower Series.

Huge numbers of real historical figures appear in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, often to amusing effect. They behave slightly anachronistically, which would probably be annoying to someone who cares a lot about that sort of thing, but I like it.

I’m not a real big fan of historical fiction, to be honest. I’d rather read a good popular history book.

Clive Cussler started doing this in his later Dirk Pitt novels- I found it egotistical and lame.

I think that real figures should be used in novels as spice should be used in cooking- sparingly or liberally in flavoring but never as the main dish. Cameos are probably best, as to try and use them much more seriously risks changing them too much.

What irks me most when a real person is made a central character is when they completely change the person’s personality or whereabouts, etc… I don’t care if it’s a fairly minor change: if Thomas Jefferson’s a character and they have the main character visit him at Monticello on a day when records indicate he was actually at another of his plantations or visiting his daughter (both a few miles away) that’s not a really big deal. It’s a bigger deal if they have somebody visit him at Monticello when in fact he was in D.C., or in Paris even- it’s such an easily checked thing.
Still more irksome, however, and I’m using actual examples in various novels I’ve read:

-Jefferson is portrayed as old and feeble and senile in his 70s (those who knew him in his last years, even those who didn’t like him, stated he was a man much younger than his years until the final few months of his life)
-Jefferson being irreverently and sardonically funny (he wasn’t known for his sense of humor and he was actually respectful of other’s religions, especially in their presence)

  • Jefferson whispering in Sally Hemings’ ear, her giggling, and then him slapping her backside all while entertaining a dinner guest (never in a million years would he have done this- he didn’t even like to have slaves or servants anywhere in the dining room when he dined or entertained and PDA of any kind even for man-wife was the height of gauche)
    -The relationship with Sally portrayed as a great tragic love affair of two peole who would have marreid but couldn’t, or
    -The relationship of Sally being a rapist and his victim for 30 years
    when most biographers- and Sally’s own son for that matter- viewed the relationship as neither of these things. They seemed to see it as a practical arrangement of mutual convenience; they probably each cared (almost impossible to have sex with someone for years and not care about them) but it’s highly unlikely either regarded the other as a spouse. TJ got a young pretty sex partner who probably looked like his wife and that he didn’t have to marry, Sally got [according to her son Madison] preferential treatment for herself/her children and his promise of freedom for her and their children upon his death (which he honored [Sally was never formally freed, but in effect she was- she was never sold when the rest of his slaves but lived with her sons (who, as part of the preferential treatment, were allowed to remain in Virginia as free men- most freedmen had to leave).

Gore Vidal is one of the best at using historical characters: he was such a stickler for detail he actually tried to change the text of Lincoln when he found out Kate Chase Sprague [daughter of Salmon Chase and not particularly well known to most people today] wasn’t really where he placed her in the novel on a particular day. I thought it was great in Lincoln (by far his best historical fiction imo) that he takes you inside the minds of several people- you read what they’re thinking, their opinions, etc.- but never of Lincoln himself, he’s never the storyteller or the person whose eyes you’re seeing through. This makes him remain enigmatic. The real characters you do see through are people like John Hay, Kate Chase and her father, William Seward, and others who, while historical characters, are not so well known- and he changes nothing that is VITAL to understanding them or to their backgrounds (i.e. he’s not going to portray a character as gay who was straight or as born rich who was born in poverty).

I also loved how he did the subject of the duel in Burr. Because it’s a novel he has a lot more leeway than a biographer or historian, thus you learn what the duel was about in the book:

Hamilton was spreading the gossip that Burr was having an incestuous relationship with his daughter Theodosia, a rumor all the more damning because [in the novel at least- and Vidal was not the first to imply this- there’s a chance it was true {Burr and his daughter were inordinately close and physically affectionate far more than the norm and are known to have been amazingly frank about their sex lives in their letters [her about her relations with her husband, him about his relations with various women he met in Paris and in NYC]}

Anyway, while this revelation is fictional and presented as such, it makes perfect sense. It’s a pretty good hypothesis- in all likelihood we’ll never know what the actual insult was, but Vidal uses the skills and liberties of a novelist to present a hypothesis that while unprovable, and that you definitely couldn’t use in a biography, doesn’t really distort reality that much, and may even be factual. I think this is the best way to deal with historical characters in fiction.

A bad example is a book I just read entitled The 19th Wifeby David Ebershoff. I panned it (in great detail) on Amazon for many reasons, but foremost was the fact that he fictionalized real characters and in so doing he completely changed them. One of the 19th wives the title refers to (there are two- the lesser one fictional one in a present day polygamous cult) is Ann Eliza (Webb Dee) Young, one of the last wives of Brigham Young who became famous for a couple of years when she divorced him, went on the lecture circuit, and wrote a bestselling memoir called Wife No. 19: My Life in Mormon Bondage. (One thing the novel does address [any historical accuracy in it is surprising] is that nobody really knows where the number 19 came from as she was by the most conservative of estimates at least his 20-something, probably much higher a number than that.)

What irks me about the book isn’t that he uses real characters (Ann Eliza, her parents, and her brother) or even that he drastically changes them, but that he drastically changes them in a way that makes them less interesting. For example, he portrays Ann Eliza as a freedom fighter on a mission to end polygamy- no, she was a woman with 2 kids [by her first husband] who wanted alimony to support them and when she couldn’t get turned to lecturing and writing in order to find financial security (it was the 1870s, not a time when a woman could realistically go out and get a decent paying job and put the kids in day care). What’s more frustrating is that he reprints very long sections from her real memoir, but completely re-writes them- it’s like a re-imagining:

-The real Ann Eliza’s mother was a teenaged foster child when she converted to Mormonism, whereupon she worked her way to Ohio to join the settlement there. In Ebershoff’s reimagining, she’s a riverboat prostitute with an illegitimate child, and Ann Eliza tells all about her escapages in her book. In the first place this is a ridiculous change worthy of a romance novel, in the second, Ann Eliza would almost certainly not have mentioned it had it been true. For all the provocative nature of its title, the book is almost frustratingly tame, and in the real book she speaks of her mother in hagiographic terms.

Far more interesting but not even mentioned: the real Ann Eliza’s mother was among the most devout of Mormon converts there was, and yet she supported Ann Eliza in the divorce and apostasized. THAT’S an interesting thing to look at, but nope, he doesn’t.

-Ann Eliza’s father has a looooooooooooonnnnnnngggg autobiographical excerpt (from a sealed manuscript in the Mormon archives) in the novel in which he talks about his horniness for a landlady in England, but pretty much everything but his name is manufactured crap; his real backstory and for that matter his actual wives were all completely different from the persons portrayed- by the same names- in the novel.

Far more interesting but not even mentioned: the real Ann Eliza’s father had at least 8 wives and over 30 children, yet by the end he was a monogamist due to having outlived all but one, and he and his surviving wife were cared for by her spinster niece. Irony all around: he sired dozens of kids to increase his family in the afterlife and had more wives than there are days in the week and yet he ended up as alone as anybody and cared for by an unmarried woman.

-Ann Eliza’s brother Gilbert is portrayed (in llloooooooooonnnnngggg rambling stream of consciousness first person narratives [excerpts from a fictional deposition no less!]) as an illegitimate self loathing polygamist with 2 wives who questions his faith. The real man was not illegitimate (was a “Jr.” in fact), was suspected of participation in the Mountain Meadows Massacre (which the book never mentions at all even though it covers that area and even though at the time he’s writing his deposition in the novel he was also being deposed over what he knew about the MMM), and a few years after his sister’s divorce he and his many sons are believed to have robbed a payroll train and used the $28,000 in gold they stole to establish a polygamous community in Mexico in protest of the government and church’s ban on polygamy- not only interesting but COMPLETELY relevant to both timethreads in the book- and never mentioned.

He also portrays Brigham as a completely devout man of unquestioning faith, when even Young himself admitted he’d questioned his faith many times, plus it’s almost certain that the real BY had a bit of the charlatan about him. Brigham Young also writes incredibly well in the novel considering the real man had only 9 days of school in his life and required secretaries for all correspondence to correct his spelling and grammar (he was a brilliant man, no question, but uneducated).
you read it and you don’t even know whether her marriage to Brigham was consummated (argument either way- he was old but still virile [had a couple of kids born to other wives after he married her], but also had many other wives and was henpecked as hell by his favorite, Amelia, and Ann Eliza lived many miles away for a time.

So point is- too long of one at that- I don’t like historical characters used in most fiction writers because too many are too willing to bend the character to have them do and say what advances the plot. I think that when they’re used they must be iron poles that YOU work the plot around when possible.