Saturday, February 28, 2015
Using Real People as Characters in Historical Fiction
by Larry Karp
For my first mystery novel, set in present-day New York City, I tried to jump-start the narrative by using real people I knew for some of the characters. As I progressed through the first draft, though, it occurred to me that some of the characters were developing very nicely, but others were not.
Without exception, the static characters were the ones based in persons from the real world, and the blocks occurred because my perceptions of the real people censored their fictional counterparts. Fictional Muriel picked up the hammer to brain Sammy, but then stopped cold and just stood there - because Real Muriel would never do a thing like that. On the other hand, Alice, created from scratch, didn't hesitate to crease Sammy's skull. Also, as I was delighted to see, the characters' actions were unfailingly consistent with, and true to, their overall personalities and behaviors. Apparently, my subconscious had no trouble turning a tabula rasa into a organically-developed character, but pre-existing conditions were clearly a problem.
My worst situation involved a murder victim-to-be whom I'd grounded deeply in a real person I despised. But before long, I realized that this character's behavior was every bit as destructive to my story as his real-world behavior was to my life. Serves me right, I thought. Leave him where he belongs. So, rather than putting a fictional hit man on him, I took matters into my own hands and sentenced him to exile from my fictional world. Much more satisfying, much better for the story.
Many fine writers don't seem to have this hangup, but for me, real and fictional worlds need to be kept separate; each person's uniqueness and individuality has to be respected. It seems wrong to try to wrench people out of their own developing life stories to inhabit tales of someone else's making.
After four mysteries populated by fully-fictional characters, I decided to write an historical-mystery trilogy based upon real-life events unexplained by history. These three stories would involve such people as Irving Berlin, Scott Joplin, John Stark (Joplin's first publisher), and Sanford Brunson Campbell ("The Ragtime Kid"). The idea of trying to explore holes in history via compatible fiction was intriguing, but the notion of creating fiction involving real persons was daunting. I gave some thought to replacing these people with fictional constructs, but couldn't get the story off the ground. It belonged to the historical persons and no one else.
But once I'd read pertinent personal histories to the point of constant repetition, I felt free to fill in the innumerable blanks from imagination. The book was closed, so to speak, on Berlin, Joplin, and the others; they were no longer of this world. In extending their lives through imagination, I didn't feel I was placing their fictional existence at odds with any real-life stories still under development. If they'd still been alive, well, that would have been another story.