Welcome to my friend and fellow historical fiction writer, N. Gemini Sasson, talking about her history and writing … Great to have you here, Gemini!
Exploring the Lives of Real Historical Figures
by N. Gemini Sasson
Ten years ago, when I sat down to write about the early 14th century Scottish War of Independence, my intention was to tell a story in one book—just one, about Robert the Bruce, King of Scots. What did I end up with? Five. Three of those make up The Bruce Trilogy and the other two are about Queen Isabella of England.
So how did that project expand so exponentially? It has everything to do with scope and complexity. As I discovered, real people are/were complex and the times in which historical figures lived were fraught with socio-political entanglements, perhaps even more so than today.
There are inherent (and tricky) challenges in writing about real historical figures. When a historian or biographer delves into the life of a person from the past, their aim should be thoroughness and objectivity. But even for the historian total objectivity can be difficult as they learn more and more about their subject. Any bias, however unintentional, is bound to transmit onto the pages. For the novelist who relies on the exhaustive research of historians, the subjectivity is then amplified because when those historical figures become characters in a book, the writer has to present them in a fashion that will encourage readers to empathize with them. I don’t know about the rest of you, but if I can’t identify with a character or, worse yet, dislike them, I’m probably not going to finish the book.
As I was writing about Robert the Bruce, making him into a likable character was almost too easy. Who couldn’t admire a rebel who leads his ragged band to battle to overcome great odds and rise victorious? But I’ve also embraced the challenge of writing about historical figures who haven’t always had the best reputations, such as Edward I, Edward II, Piers Gaveston, Hugh Despenser, Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer. Some of their actions can be hard to justify, but it is the novelist’s duty to redeem their character and show them in a more favorable light so that readers will keep reading.
‘How can they do that with people history has not always been kind to?’ you ask. By looking at all the available information, not just popular theory. And, perhaps even more importantly, by attempting to understand what drove these people to do what they did. Was it greed, power or lack of morality? Or fear of losing control of their fates, the hunger for revenge or the trials of forbidden love? I mean, were they really evil and unscrupulous, or were they restricted by the mores and laws of their day, born into situations they would not have chosen, or trapped in toxic marriages? Hmm, when you think about it that way…
For example, Queen Isabella may have done some things which are hard to defend, but what exactly drove her to return to England from France with an invasion force composed primarily of mercenaries and instigate the removal of her husband from the throne? Going back further, why did her husband, Edward II, have so much difficulty working with his barons? What motivated him to stand by Gaveston and later Despenser so steadfastly? For a few years, while their children were young, it seemed he and Isabella co-existed in a harmonious marriage. What happened to drive them apart? It’s so hard to gage their daily troubles and motivations centuries later. Perhaps we’ll never really know the full truth.
In real life, however, very few people are entirely good or bad in nature. More and more these days, writers of historical fiction and non-fiction are tackling the perpetually maligned figures of the past and providing plausible motivations for their actions. Note that I don’t say excusable, but if we attempt to understand the psychological and emotional causes, then we can become less judgmental and more sympathetic.
I always welcome a challenge, though. So bring on the bad boys. I like digging around inside people’s heads to figure out what made them tick.
Books at Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/sasson-Gemini?store=nookstore&keyword=sasson%2C+Gemini