The destination for history

Resurrecting the dead: Or the delicate art of writing biographical fiction


Biographical fiction is the art of bringing historical figures back to life. It turns a name in the history books into a person so vivid, complex, and yet comprehensible that history itself becomes more understandable. Good biographical fiction provides insight into the psychology of real historical characters and so helps explain the historical events these men and women helped shape by explaining the motives and character traits that drove them to play their role in history.

But writing biographical fiction is not easy and it has some unique challenges. As with writing history of any kind, there are always gaps in the historical record and events so controversial or complex that they produce multiple, conflicting accounts. When writing biography, however, there is the added challenge of trying to understand motives for recorded actions and the emotions of the individuals involved ― unless, of course, the subject kept diaries or wrote letters and memoirs describing emotions. In that case, however, the biographer is confronted with the equally challenging issue of how honest or self-serving such documents are!

Biographers like historians, whether working in fiction or non-fiction, must fill in gaps, select between competing accounts of events, and speculate about motives and emotions. Non-fictional biographers do this openly by discussing the different possible interpretations and explaining the reasoning behind their analysis of the character’s actions and motives. Novelists do this by turning their analysis of events into a novel and their interpretation of the personalities into characters.

For the biographical novelist, the historical record is therefore the skeleton ― or plot ― of the book.  History, not the novelist, defines the beginning and the end of the principal character, and indeed all the essential historical events in between. But most readers do not want to read about skeletons, certainly not inert ones. They want characters with flesh and blood – with faces, emotions, dreams, and fears. The goal of a biographical novelist is to add contours, colours, animation and above all personality to that historical skeleton.

The novelist’s toolbox for fleshing out a historical skeleton includes research into the “skeleton’s” family background, social status, and profession (and that of the “skeleton’s” ancestors, spouse and partners as well). It includes investigating the customs and culture of the society in which the “skeleton” lived, the legal system to which he or she was subject, the technology and fashions of the age and more. In addition, the biographer (whether for fiction or non-fiction) must also investigate the biographies of known figures who influenced the subject: e.g. their parents, siblings, spouses, colleagues, superiors and subordinates, partners, opponents and rivals.

Only after the biographer has developed an understanding of the environment in which the subject lived and the relationships the historical figure had with contemporaries is it possible to start constructing a plausible character. Based on this research, the novelist evolves an understanding of why the subject acted in one way or another. The novelist is able to hypothesize the emotions the subject likely felt in certain situations, and to understand the fears, inhibitions, ambitions, and obsessions that might have driven, inspired, warped, and hindered the protagonist. An excellent example of this is Sharon Kay Penman’s biographical novel of Richard III, The Sunne in Splendour. She effectively explains King Richard III by showing how his childhood relationships with his brothers and his Neville cousins made him the man he became.

So far, so good, but a good novelist, in contrast to a non-fiction biographer, also wants to address readers at a literary level. A good novel is not just accurate history about engaging characters, it should also have some compelling themes that will keep the reader thinking about the book long after the reading is over. In biographical fiction, however, the historical skeleton limits a novelist’s freedom of action. It is not possible to give the biography of Anne Boleyn a happy ending!

So this is where it gets tricky ― and bit controversial: a biographical novelist striving to produce a work of art may feel the need to deviate – carefully, selectively, and strategically – from the historical record. This is not about giving a character two heads, or only one hand: it is about changing very subtly some of the “flesh and blood.”

Let me give an example from the world of painting. The surviving contemporary paintings of Isabella I of Castile painted by unknown artists who may have met her are not terribly flattering or inspiring. However, there are many portraits of Isabella by subsequent artists who had certainly never laid eyes on her yet are far more evocative and appealing. These later works may not as accurately depict Isabella’s physical features, yet they may capture her spirit in that they make the viewer see aspects of Isabella’s known personality – her piety combined with her iron will, and so on.

This explains how different works of biographical fiction about the same subject can be very different ― yet equally good. Is Schiller’s or Shaw’s Joan of Arc better? I cannot say offhand which one historians would choose as more accurate, but I do know that both – regardless of which is more accurate – are great works of biographical fiction.

Creating a work of art requires clarity of purpose, consistency of style, and a proper use of light and dark. It requires not only extrapolating and interpreting, but some outright falsification. In a novel, it almost always requires the creation some fictional characters – servants or friends, lovers or rivals – that serve as foils for highlighting character traits, explain later (known) behavior, or provide contrast in order to give the central character deeper contours.

However, from my experience as a writer of non-fictional biography (Codename Valkyrie: General Olbricht and the Plot Against Hitler) and biographical fiction (the Leonidas of Sparta trilogy and the Balian d’Ibelin trilogy), the greatest challenge for the biographical novelist is paring away or condensing some of the known facts or strategically making changes to the historical record in order to produce a clearer and more compelling central character or more comprehensible story.

When resurrecting the dead, historical novelists seek to raise the spirit, not the body. The spirit, not each pound of flesh or each wrinkle on the face, is what we wish our readers and future generations to understand and honour. And spirits are always ethereal, elusive – and not quite real.

By Helena P. Schrader

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