Thursday, August 06, 2009

Anatomy of an Outline, Part III

Selection of milieu for a historical novel is only the first of many choices the author must make. In the worked example we are creating here, we have settled on the court of Louis XIV, more specifically 'The Affair of the Poisons'. In many ways, this is the easy bit.

The next, and perhaps most significant, choice is that of protagonist. The historical novelist is freighted with more options--and hence more opportunities for error--than the fantasist. The latter, to oversimplify a touch, makes up his characters and away he goes. The historical novelist has to determine the balance between 'real' historical characters and those solely the product of imagination. Philippa Gregory's Tudor novels use almost exclusively figures from the historical record; CJ Sansom's novels set in the same period mix and match, with the main characters invented. (This latter practice is known as 'ranulfism', according to this interesting if tendentious article). At the opposite end of the spectrum to Philippa Gregory, a writer like Matt Curran can use exclusively fictional characters in an historical setting.

We know enough about the Affair of the Poisons for it to be feasible to people a story about it entirely with characters from the historical record. The main players, Louis XIV, Madame de Brinvilliers, Madame de Montespan, La Reynie, are well enough documented that we can attempt to 'reconstruct' their characters as they might have been (even given differing interpretations by historians). However, this very availability of information can be an obstacle to the novelist, who after all is not aspiring to write a history textbook. The imaginative freedom of ranulfism can allow the writer to create the character the story needs, without distorting the reputation of a historical figure. Judith Merkle Riley, whose The Oracle Glass covers the same events, uses many historical characters but her protagonist is a ranulf.

There is no right answer to this question. The story the writer wants to tell will determine the best option. We should be clear, though, that even where characters in a novel are drawn from life, they will still be a fictional construct. One of the most vivid of all characters in historical fiction, Robert Graves' Claudius, may be informed by Graves' extensive reading of Plutarch and Suetonius -- but the character on the page is all Graves.


Matt Curran said...

Hi Tim

I guess the choice of protagonist comes down to the genre or sub-genre you're aiming for. For example, if the characters in my Secret War novels were actual historical persons, I would be heading down the 'alternative history' route (which would be fun - imagine, for example, if the Duke of Wellington was in fact a clandestine demon slayer and soldiering was a side-line!).
I wanted to get away with as much as I could by using fictitious characters in real settings, with references to actual historical events that could glue the time and setting together. Fictitious characters have more freedom, but at a price - that it's harder to mark their place in history than someone who is actually known because of historical reference. I guess the other thing to say about fictitious characters is that they can be wholly sympathetic when the real historical figures cannot unless they are contrived. They can bridge the gap between reader and character where perhaps a figure, say, like Mussolini is purely despicable, Mussolini's barber might be a nice guy who likes his job, doesn't want to get shot for speaking out of turn but hates the way Mussolini is dragging Italy into fascism. Did Mussolini have a barber? I guess it doesn't really matter, in a fictional context he does now, and it's from the barber’s point of view we see Italy collapse.
Personally in pure historical fiction, I prefer to see events unfold from a fictional character’s POV - oddly it feels more natural than second guessing actual people in history and what they might have done and felt. For that I would probably look at non-fiction. Though I guess, if the story is compelling, that wouldn’t matter too much…

Neil said...

You've mentioned the BBC/HBO series Rome before Tim, which I think was a perfect blend of historical figures and fictional ones. Could that kind of approach work for your Affair of the poisons?

By the way, if it helps in any way in the future, I know a wee bit about fencing. En garde!

And the verification word, if you're looking for a roguish anti-hero or evil Cardinal's sidekick, is Blyecrut.

Tim Stretton said...

Matt, I think the lat point is the key one - whatever you can pull off, works!

Neil, I'd thought about using the Rome series as an example. The mixture of historical and fictional characters is deftly done. It means that even if you know what happens to Mark Antony in the end there's still some dramatic suspense.

Some viewers were offended by the way in which the 'fictional' characters intruded on historical events, as in Pullo's fathering of Caesarion and murder of Cicero, but I enjoyed it. (And I know Pullo wasn't strictly fictional, but...)

David Isaak said...

Ranulfism? Who knew?

I think the article underestimates the roles of Pullo and Varenus, though. They are certainly more than two pairs of eyes to provide windows onto the great events. Indeed, there are many, many major scenes in Rome at which neither of those characters, nor any other invented characters, are present.

A google search, however, reveals that Mussolini's barber is pretty well-identified as an historical figure:

"Mussolini's barber, Luigi Galbani (1918-Pres), is presently the barber at the Excelsior Hotel in Rome, Italy. He was also the consultant of the 1981 movie The Lion's Heart about Mussolini."

Which is too damn bad. "Mussolini's Barber" is a great title, and I was hoping Matt might write the novel.

Considering that Mussolini wore his hair shaved, being Mussolini's barber strikes me as a pretty cushy job. No fine adjustments there.