#5onFri: Five Ways to Incorporate Real Historical Figures into Your Fiction

by Margaret McNellis
published in Writing

When it comes to writing historical fiction, there are all sorts of subgenres. Right now, I myself am exploring magical realism, legends, and myths. With legends come legendary characters, so I’ve had to think about different ways to incorporate well-known characters, real-life historical figures, and otherwise well-known personages into my fiction.

I’ve tried all of these five tips, and they’ve worked in different situations. My suggestion is to play around with all five to see which you like best. Each one comes with its own set of benefits and potential pitfalls.

Keep reading to learn five ways to incorporate historical figures into your fiction.

1)  Get Into the Person’s Shoes

When I first started piecing together how I wanted to write my thesis for my MFA, I decided I was going to write a novel with my ancestor as my main character. My ancestor was the Interpreter General of New England in the mid-1600s, so he was deeply involved in events of both political and historical significance, especially during the Pequot War.

I learned everything I could about Thomas Stanton. I learned about his life and about his family. I then developed his character from my research. I pulled character traits from my own late father, whom I hoped to honor by writing the story.

I felt fortunate in that Thomas had a set timeline. I thought this would make plotting easier, and with my own tight deadlines for school and plenty of research still to do, I thought it would be best to use the events of his life to define my narrative. 

The only problem? Thomas’s real life turned out to be more restrictive for me. Part of this was due to the fact that for several decades following the war, he lived privately so there wasn’t much to go on where public record was concerned. For some time, he lived away from his family at a trading post he established.

It’s not that writing him as my main character would have been impossible with this timeline, but as my father was as introverted as one could be, my version of Thomas wouldn’t have been conflicted living alone in the woods. Please don’t mistake this as my saying my dad didn’t like being around us. I think he wanted my mom, my sisters and I to live with him, alone in the woods. 

But since Thomas’s family ultimately joined him, the only conflicts he might have experienced would have been completely fictionalized. Somehow, this felt dishonest when I’d bookended his story with facts and real events.

Getting into the historical figure’s shoes can be fun, amazing, and exciting. But as much as their timeline might help you plot, take care that it doesn’t leave you feeling painted into a corner.

2)  Play Six Degrees of [Historical Figures]

This is a method I’ve only used once, but it’s one I’d like to try again so I thought I’d share it. Where I grew up, in southern New England, old inns and establishments always make a big deal of founding fathers who once visited the premises. For example, at the Griswold Inn in Essex, CT, they advertise that George Washington stayed there. The same building still stands, which for America is pretty cool (though I’ve been to Turkey, where there are buildings thousands of years old). 

Anyway, they’re basically name-dropping. The term may have a negative connotation to it, but many people love to name-drop. You can even use this as a somewhat annoying foible to round out your main character.

You’ve met someone who name-drops, like they’re constantly promoting themselves on the coattails of others. Mr. Collins does this in Pride and Prejudice; he’s always mentioning Lady Catherine DeBurgh to make himself sound more important.

3)  What’s Black and White and Read All Over?

One of my favorite writing exercises has been to search through old newspapers to come up with stories and see what sort of ads were run (some of them are pretty funny). One way to pull historical figures into your fiction is to include them in the newspaper. There are a few ways you can do this: 

  • Write a fictional newspaper article
  • Have your MC read an article mentioning what’s going on with said historical figure
  • Write characters debating over what said figure said in the press

Experiment and have fun with this option. I can’t stress enough the importance of giving yourself the freedom to play in your writing. It’s one of the most important lessons I learned in my MFA studies.

4) Give Your MC a Pen Pal

These days, when something goes down with someone famous, we hop on social media or text our friends about it. It was no different in pre-tech revolution days, except that people used letters. Giving your main character a pen pal can be a great way to fit historical figures into your fiction. Or you might consider having your character write to said historical figure.

In my own ancestry research, I came across a letter from George Washington to one of my ancestors. In the letter, Washington tells my ancestor thanks but no thanks for his advice for the new nation’s financial system. I don’t have my ancestor’s original letter, but the response is interesting.

 Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith is a great example of American literature that explores the epistolary format. Aside from Smith’s characters, what fascinated me most about this book is that the reader only gets to see the letters written by the main character–not the ones she receives. 

Play around with epistolary formats. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking use of letters in your fiction has to work a certain way. 

The one pitfall I will warn you about is to avoid having your characters write about something they wouldn’t actually write about. If your reader needs to know but they wouldn’t write it, fit it in via exposition.

5) Work the Gossip Mill

If the plethora of reality television shows and rag mags in grocery stores tells me anything, it’s that people love to gossip. Can you imagine how much gossip must have floated around England during the rule of Henry VIII? The man chopped off the heads of two wives and was married to four others. The gossip mill in his court must have needed a new stone every few months.

People love to talk about famous people. They love to know every detail of their lives. While I imagine details were harder to learn in the past, I also don’t think people gossiped less than they do now. 

When it comes to incorporating real historical figures into your fiction, there’s no right or wrong way. And you may discover ways beyond the five listed here. But the lesson is this: don’t be afraid to experiment with your writing. Try different methods and see which works best for the story you want to write.

Margaret McNellis earned her MFA in fiction in June 2019. She also holds an MA in English and creative writing. She’s had seven short stories published, the most recent and notable being “Have Mercy,” which won the Assignment Magazine student fiction contest for 2019. Margaret works as an adjunct English professor, a writing coach and freelance writer/editor. She’s working on several novels and a short story collection of historical fiction. You can find Margaret on Twitter or Instagram , or on her website.

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