There are several points I ponder over when trying to answer this question. These points are, in my opinion, important areas for anyone thinking of including a real-life figure in their fiction to consider. Yet, this blog entry isn’t an attempt to answer the question is it right to portray a real-life figure in fiction? I think the answer to that has to come from the writer. Similarly, this blog entry doesn’t include biographies or non-fiction accounts within its scope of applicable literature. Nor does it single out specific books or authors. Rather, this blog entry centres on the general idea of putting real-life historic figures into fictitious scenarios.
How ‘historic’ is the figure?
There are several facets to this:
1) How historically important was the figure during their lifetime and since?
If they are famous for a particular act, talent, and/or part they played in an historic event then you should consider how much (or how little) of this aspect you wish to portray in your fiction.
2) How long ago did the figure leave this mortal coil?
If the figure has only recently died then it’s fair to assume some—if not most—people would’ve been aware of their existence and what they were famous for. As a result, these same people—your potential readers—may have an idea already formed in their mind of what the figure was like as a person. Your portrayal of the figure may then conflict with their predefined idea (though this isn’t limited to recently departed figures of historic import).
3) Are there descendants of the figure who either knew them personally or are protective of that figure’s part in their family history?
There are descendants of famous historical figures we know are still living. For example, the descendants of Charles Dickens meet every year for Christmas Dinner. They place the bust of his likeness at the head of the table and arrange seating so that the eldest sits closest to Dickens. Agatha Christie’s descendants are also still around. This particular aspect is more to do with having sensitivity to—or at least an awareness of—the fact there are people out there who still consider the famous figure to be a huge part of their family.
Legality of the portrayal
To be clear, there’s no such thing (as far as I’m aware of, at least) of copyrighting a person’s life. Contemporary accounts of that person’s life, from friends, family, etc. may be copyrighted but the historic person’s actual existence isn’t—if that makes sense? Furthermore, fictional characters created by the figure—such as Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot etc—could still be protected under copyright law.
If you wanted your portrayal of the historical figure to be an “authorised” one then you may contact the figure’s legal estate (often times their descendants) to seek permission to include their ancestor in your work. If permission is granted then it could open up access to private memories of that figure shared amongst their descendants, and other documentation which could assist you in shaping your portrayal. This leads me onto my next point…
How accurate should your portrayal to be?
This doesn’t have a straight-cut answer. As the writer, you have to decide on the degree of historical accuracy you want to include in your portrayal of the historic figure. If that figure is more obscure in the public consciousness then there might not be a great deal of contemporary accounts about them and their life. Similarly, they may not have any living descendants. In this case, the decision is almost made for you.
Yet, if you’re thinking of including someone like Charles Dickens in your writing—who has an abundance of non-fiction and fiction works written about him—then the decision isn’t as easy to make. At the end of the day, the answer to this question comes down to how strongly you feel about the historic figure and their legacy. Also, to how much research you’re able to dedicate yourself to in achieving that accurate portrayal.
This isn’t an exhaustive list but I hope it’s given you some food for thought. For my own writing I’ve made the personal decision of not including any real-life historic figures beyond a passing reference by my characters. My sole reason behind this decision was I didn’t feel confident I could conduct enough research to create an accurate portrayal of them. You may feel differently, though, and that’s okay. So, all that’s left for me to say is: good luck!
~ T.G. Campbell, June 2019.
WRITING NOTES: Historical Figures in Fiction
As someone who writes mysteries set in Victorian Era London I often ask myself this question: should I include a real-life figure from that period? There are certainly many I could choose from. I could opt for an individual the majority of readers have heard of—such as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen etc.—or a relative unknown, such as Superintendent William Fidge of the Metropolitan Police’s G (or Finsbury) Division in 1879.