Thursday, January 7, 2010

Historical Fiction About Real-Life Figures

I'm not really reading that much right now. It's the first week of the quarter, and this very minute I'm procrastinating. I should be working on my lecture for tomorrow, but I am looking for an excuse to put it off just a little bit longer. So, here I am, with some random thoughts about historical fiction.

One thing I think I am coming to realize when I AM reading is that while I love historical fiction, I'm sometimes a bit leery of historical fiction based on real people's lives. Fictional characters set in historical times don't bother me much because the lines between truth and fiction are fairly clear. But when a fictional story is told about an actual person, I get a little bit nervous, especially if that fictionalization portrays the person in a different (or more scandalous) way than the standard historical record. This is probably just the history teacher in me talking, but I think I worry that some readers will not be able to pick out what is truth and what is fiction, and that the fiction will become the truth to those readers. I tend to go out and try to learn more about historical figures that I've read about to try and sort the truth from the fiction when I have questions. Certainly other readers do the same. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if historical fiction prods many readers to go out and pick up non-fiction titles to learn more about the figures they've been reading about (it's true for me, anyway).

I am definitely NOT saying that I think writers should not fictionalize the lives of people who lived in the past. Fictionalized accounts of lives that we don't know much about are, when done right, entertaining and often incorporate real details about that person's life and the time period into the story. I think I just feel better about it when an author talks about the ways in which they have departed from the historical record in an afterword or preface. I really enjoy it when an author explains that there is some disagreement among scholars about an aspect of a person's life and that they have taken the side they think is most interesting or the side they agree with in their portrayal. I don't know, maybe it helps me to understand where that author is coming from? I know most historical fiction authors do a lot of research in their writing process, and I am always interested in hearing about that part of their process.

Anyway, this is not a post criticizing any authors or any novels portraying historical figures, or saying that novels about historical figures should have disclaimers; it's just me giving voice to something that I've been mulling over for a week or so.

What is your take on historical fiction about real-life figures? Do you take it for what it is--fiction--or do fictionalizations make you question what is truth and what is fiction? Does historical fiction about real-life figures become a gateway to you learning more about their lives?


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