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The Truth In Fiction | My Advice On Bringing Historical Figures Into Your Fiction

When I was in college, I was enrolled in a course titled Writing Women, which focused on women’s literature.

Towards the end of the semester, we were tasked with choosing a woman featured in a yearbook from the early 1900s, back when the college was a school for women aspiring to become teachers. We were given free rein as to what our project was. Some of my peers wrote poems or short stories, another created a Facebook profile for her focus figure.

I created a Pinterest account for mine.

There were a few people, including the professor, who were surprised with that move. By that point, many of my classmates and instructors had come to expect me to write a piece of fiction, especially historical fiction, any chance I could get. I had even written a short story set in the Regency Era for a different assignment in that very class inspired by one of the works we had when discussing agency.

So why wasn’t I champing at the bit write another one?

Bringing historical figures into works of historical fiction is often used as a center for. When I was younger, I had a series of books called The Royal Diaries. Similar to the Dear America series, which are written as journals by fictional characters chronicling their lives during points of history like the Salem Witch Trials, the Civil War, the sinking of the Titanic, and WWI, The Royal Diaries are written as the diaries of royal figures including Cleopatra, Anastasia, Marie Antoinette, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Queen Victoria. The American Girls franchise is another way of introducing young girls to history, though I didn’t have any of these dolls.

I once read an article about the Barbie Sheroes collection and the controversy it sparked after Mattel announced its intention of including Frida Kahlo in the set. Although intended to be an inspiring tribute to the artist, it inspired some backlash for its depiction.

As Aditi Natasha Kini said in her Washington Post article, “There are two Fridas, and pop culture wants only one: the celebrity…The Frida fashioned by pop culture has become so detached from the real Frida that perhaps Mattel did not expect blowback for depicting the artist with groomed eyebrows and lighter eyes and without her wheelchair. Frida, the queer, disabled artist, with her radical and revolutionary politics, painted from pain; Mattel’s version of Kahlo sanitizes her body and her history into an easily digestible, able-bodied, pretty sameness. This is Frida the celebrity, but it’s certainly not Frida the artist.”

The matter is not Mattel’s intention of creating a Frida Kahlo doll, but the company’s portrayal of the artist.

Pablo Sangri, the lawyer representing Kahlo’s great-niece Mara de Anda Romeo, explained, “We will talk to them about regularizing this situation, and by regularizing I mean talking about the appearance of the doll, its characteristics, the history the doll should have to match what the artist really was.”

The Chicago Tribune describes the doll as being more “Barbie-like than Frida-like.”

The hope is for a redesign more true to Kahlo.

This situation is one of the reasons I avoided writing a short story for Writing Women, and it is not the only one that comes to mind.

At this point, I feel it goes without saying I am a great admirer of Jane Austen, both of her works and the writer herself.

You may know of the film Becoming Jane, starring Anne Hathaway and James Mcavoy. To some people, it’s a wonderfully-done romantic film. While I do find it enjoyable, I have an easier time watching it if I can make myself forget that it’s about Jane.

The subject that inspired Becoming Jane is one I can go on for hours about, but for the sake of brevity, I will provide a more (slightly) condensed version.

Jane Austen once knew a man named Tom Lefroy, a law student from Ireland and the nephew of Jane’s friend. While there is scarce information about the extent of their relationship, as there are with many things about her life, there is a theory he was the inspiration for Mr. Darcy as whatever courtship may or may not have taken place between them would have theoretically taken place around the same time Jane was writing Pride and Prejudice. 

Few of Jane’s letters have survived, as her sister burned a majority after her death. Only a small fraction of them reference Lefroy.

“I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. . . . He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. . . . [H]e has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove—it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light. He is a very great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same coloured clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded.” (January 9, 1796)

“I look forward with great impatience to it, as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening. I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white Coat. . . . Tell Mary that I make over Mr Heartley & all his Estate to her for her sole use and Benefit in future, . . . as I mean to confine myself in future to Mr Tom Lefroy, for whom I do not care sixpence.” (January 14, 1796)

“At length the Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, & when you receive this it will be over—My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea.” (January 15, 1796).

There may be some truth to the possibility of her developing something of a crush on Tom, but it never went beyond that.

Tom went on to marry an heiress with a substantial fortune, fathered seven children, and eventually became Lord Chief Justice of Ireland.

Jane, however, did not marry at all.

This story is one of the most-romanticized aspects of Jane’s life. It is not uncommon for her relationship with Tom, whatever it may have been, to be turned as a tragic story of unrequited love. Becoming Jane is one of the greatest culprits.

Film-Tom eventually falls in love with and proposes to Film-Jane, and they set off to elope a short time after.

This is where the movie really starts to feel like a fanfiction gone off the rails.

Even though Film-Jane decides on-route to break things off between them after finding a letter from a family member about the Lefroys’ financial situation in his coat pocket, putting Film-Tom back on the path of marrying the heiress Real-Tom did, moments like that are really frustrating to me. 

I was aware Becoming Jane is not a biography or documentary long before the first time I watched it, but I was caught off-guard by the almost-elopement. I’m all for surprising the audience and encourage plot twists, but there is a time and a place.

Becoming Jane feels very much like it was based on the sort of What If method I mentioned in a recent post about how I develop plotlines. However, this is what I perceive as the source of its flaw.

The second half of the relies on the premise of What if Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy were romantically involved? and spends too much time romanticizing the facts to the point they become fiction. While it does get some things right, it takes the rest in a direction that causes it to stray too far from accuracy.

I want to be very clear. I am not saying you should never use real people or events in your fiction. There are so many examples of this being done well. The problem is, when they are not done well.

As is the case with the aforementioned Frida Kahlo Barbie, when a work of fiction uses a real person, I feel it is highly important to portray them accurately.

Sometimes, accurately does not mean favorably or the way pop culture may wish to see them (like a polished up Frida Kahlo or a heartbroken and forlorn Jane Austen turning her failed romance with Tom Lefroy into what is now recognized as one of the greatest novels of literary history). Research can lead to interesting findings, often ones which do not require manipulating facts to create an element of suspense or in an effort to shock the audience.

Writing fiction is not writing a textbook, and this is especially true in historical fiction. You do not need to provide a full-length biography of any real people you bring in, whether they be the protagonist or are just there for a brief meet-and-greet with your original character in passing.  However, you should do your research and do your best to make an educated guess when you are trying to fill in the gaps.

Remember, you are never going to know absolutely everything there is to know, and that’s okay. My advice is to only take creative liberties where you absolutely must, when all there can be are assumptions about what really happened as a result of no evidence. There is the chance some things may fly under the radar for a majority of your readers, but there is also the chance someone who has been studying your subject matter picks up your book and finds it unfavorable as a result of historical inaccuracies, especially in areas where there is plenty of factual information available.

They may be appearing in a work of fiction, but they are (or were) real people at one time. If there is anything to be said for the modern-day world, it’s how easy it is to misconstrue and misuse information and how hurtful it can be.

With research must come respect.

What is your favorite biopic or docudrama? Is it accurate to the history of the life of its subject? Let me know in the comments below.



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