Using real people in historical fiction – how much can you invent?

Nail Your Novel

I’ve had this question from M:

I’m writing a historical novel set in Australia in 1872. The fictional events are based on real events or phenomena. A few characters are based on real people, who I’ve researched. One is Thursday October Christian the second, grandson of Fletcher Christian, of the Bounty Mutiny fame. During his life he held positions of responsibility on Pitcairn Island. He is making a cameo appearance, greeting characters as they arrive in a ship.

My problem is this. There is very little information on him, so I am wondering how to describe him. There is information on his father, who was a colourful character, so I would like to model TOC 2nd on him. But what would you do?

No matter what you write, there’s one thing you must assume. Whatever you fudge, whatever you’re inaccurate about, will be found out.

Partly this is sod’s law…

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5 thoughts on “Using real people in historical fiction – how much can you invent?

  1. I just published a novel about Mary Allerton Cushman – she was a Pilgrim and there is virtually no information about Pilgrim women, so I made her up out of whole cloth, using the history and what is known of life at the time to make her real. Of course, there is a lot known about the men of the Plymouth Colony, and that I incorporated. The book was very well received, especially by Pilgrim descendants and historians, Now I’m working on a book about Daniel Boone using an imaginary character. So again I am using all that is known about him and his wife and family to provide a solid background.,

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  2. If there is no history, invent as much as you wish is my initial answer but better, I think, to insert a non-historical character to then describe the person, character etc. This is a trick used by many historical fiction writers. Insert a character who may have seen or heard all that is going on to describe real events from a personal POV whilst sticking to history. I saw him as… He seemed to me… etc. (Possibly, in this case a cabin boy or unknown native).
    Importantly (whilst still trying to write an historical fiction of Somerled, Lord of the Isles). Sometimes no one anywhere knows what truly happened.

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