Historical Fiction vs The Truth

Welcome back to another blog hop, with #OpenBook. Here’s this week’s prompt.

What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?

I must admit, I had a bit of a block with this week’s topic. I’m not a writer of historical or even contemporary fiction so I don’t use real people in my stories. But I do have historical characters in my future worlds. So I thought that I’d write about them, with an example.

Let me say, right from the start.

I have great admiration for writers of historical fiction. They have to take a recorded event, with real people and fit their fiction around it. The characters of the real people are mostly fixed in the minds of readers, the skill comes in joining the real to the fiction and making it appear as if it could be true. While it’s true that the dead cannot be defamed, there’s a limit to how much their lives can be stretched to accommodate the fiction.

If you seek to influence what people believe about a real person, how much does it matter to anyone, except the purist? Can you drive potential readers away by making good people do bad things in your fiction?

Like I said, it’s a potential minefield. Hats off to them.

In writing about the future (here we go again, veering wildly off the subject), I’m not faced with the same problems. Because they aren’t real people, I have carte blanche to make and modify the historical figures that feature in my universes. They can be good, bad or whatever combination of traits that I want. There is no chance of upsetting the historians (who haven’t been born yet). I will receive no letters from solicitors and there is no chance that surviving relatives will come for me in the middle of the night.

In my worlds,

just as in reality,

There are good men, like Miles Goram, a seeker of truth. Or Horis Strongman, who saved a country.

And bad men such as the Chenko brothers, gangsters for hire.

And then there are those who could be either, depending on who you believe.

This week, I’m going to tell you about one of the last group. A man called Ballantyne Alysom.

In my future, he was an explorer from the mists of their antiquity, a legend who opened up the galaxy and increased our knowledge of it. His adventures in his research ship, the Far Explorer, thrilled billions. He was remembered fondly as a great man, a benevolent teacher, a philanthropist.

I decided to write the truth about him, how he wasn’t really like that at all. How an image can overcome the truth; if you have money and power. How you only find out about someone’s real character when the chips are down.

Survive was the result.

In the official account, the one that everyone remembers, Ballantyne was stranded on a remote planet and somehow managed to stay alive until he was rescued. His reputation was thus assured.

If you want to know what really happened on Qister-Alu, you’ll need to read the book.

As one reader said, “This reads like a future history.”

Ballantyne Alysom is the Galaxy’s most famous explorer.

Davis Jansen is the cameraman he takes to record his latest mission. 
Alysom is giving nothing away, except that it’s something that’s never been seen before. 
When things go wrong, they are marooned on a savage and uncharted planet. The survivors need a leader they can rely on. 

Jansen watches and records it all as Alysom’s true character is revealed. He’s not the genial and fearless explorer that everyone sees. 

The Far Explorer is a ship riddled with infighting and jealousy, Alysom is controlling and arrogant, nothing like the man that his reputation suggests.

Jansen’s efforts to expose the truth carry just as much risk as surviving on the planet did. 

Maybe more

Find out if enough lies can ever bury the truth in Survive, the tale of Ballantyne Alysom.

“I recommend this book, it’s the kind you can’t put down till the end and then you’re disappointed when the end happens.”

Have I strayed too far from the brief (again)?

Let me know what you think about this week’s subject.

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4 Responses

  1. Roberta Eaton Cheadle

    I enjoyed your thoughts, Richard. I write historical fiction and how I approach historical characters depends on how long ago the events happened. I don’t think anyone will sue me over Caligula from Roman times but they might sue me if I write about Tony Blair or Jacob Zuma.

    • Richard Dee

      Thanks, it’s far too complicated for me, I’ll stick to creating a past that fits my future.

  2. phil huston

    Nice marketing redirect! I had to bail on this week because in my mind who’s to say historical figure X didn’t cross paths with fictional character Y in a bar somewhere where historical figure X offered sage advice, or reefer, or a hooker’s phone number or a Gideon Bible with a murder weapon concealed inside? I use fictional characters in legitimate institutions from government agencies to football teams. So why not have the ghost of Robert Johnson pop into a kid’s bedroom to help him with his guitar lesson?

    • Richard Dee

      It’s not a problem I encounter. After all, my history hasn’t happened yet. So I thought I would pad my post out with an advert for some future history.

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