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Via Cheryl’s Mewsings, I found this from Guy Gavriel Kay, one of my favourite writers: Are novelists entitled to use real-life characters?

He makes the distinction between peopling fiction with real people as background, and using them as point of view characters, in other words, purporting to know what they think and feel – their internal lives. He is not happy with that, saying that a line has been crossed, into a “dramatically expanded perception of entitlement, and of eroded privacy”, even if the person is long since dead.

A.S. Byatt says writers who combine biography and fiction, are indulging in an “appropriation of others’ lives and privacy”.

I have to agree. I would in fact go one step further: I don’t like the tendency of the movie industry to make films that deliberately distort real people, alive or dead, for their own purposes. Note that I realise the medium does call for a lot of adjustment to the truth e.g. taking liberties with the time involved, or shifting the place of an incident somewhere else for aesthetic reasons or time constraints and I have no problem with that, so my operative word would be “distort”. I hate it when film makers deliberately distort what we suspect is the truth, for the purposes of a good film. When they put words in A’s mouth, which evidence indicates he would have been horrified to utter, or make B promiscuous when evidence suggests she patently was not.

What do you think? Do we have the right to mess with real people, alive or dead, in our literary or cinematographic work, getting inside their heads or perverting what we know about their lives, just in order to make a good piece of fiction?

Kay’s solution is to write fantasy!


Untitled Post — 17 Comments

  1. This is why I totally, totally despise writing historical fiction that involves real characters, or indeed writing about a culture that's not mine. I feel like I'm stealing someone else's life and twisting it.

  2. I don't mind when a story is set against a historical background e.g. Georgette Heyer used to mention the Royals in her books but basically only as an anecdote of what was happening at the time. However, having watched the film Elizabeth showing her having an affair with someone or other (forget who) I was furious because we don't know whether she had affairs or not. People suspect that she did, but we don't actually know. Therefore people will watch this movie and take it as gospel.

    Right now on TV there is a series about Henry VIII which, admittedly I have never watched, but I get very irritated that the actor in question doesn't even have red hair and doesn't even look remotely like Henry either young or old. I suspect the whole story is full of historical inaccuracies too – OK this is not writing per se, but its still telling a totally fictional story – unless Time Travel is happening and I haven't heard!!!

  3. I dislike this too. I make a point of not watching films "based on fact" and I don't choose to read books that fictionalise real people. I find it incredibly insulting and offensive that anyone does this and believes it is justified. Fiction is fiction and I love it but real people and their families in the case of historical figures are not fiction and deserve to be treated with respect.
    Rant over.

  4. I love Kay and this topic is linked to why I decided I could not place my story in China. I don't care how good my research is, I simply could not duplicate China. I am not Chinese. I cannot give my setting the depth of realism required by a culture that embraced two difference belief structures at the time of my story, let alone all of the other cultural differences. In the end, my story is better because it is set in a world of my creation. It is based loosely on reality, but this is a reality that never existed, but nonetheless feels real. Excellent question and I'd love to know where you saw Kay discussing it.

  5. Follow the link in the first line, Victoria – it takes you to the Guardian BookBlog, and hence to a couple of other interesting links, including the Byatt one.

  6. "Kay's solution is to write fantasy!"

    I'm not sure about this one Glenda. I very much respect Kay's, and your own, feelings on this and I can see where you're coming from. But I honestly don't think it's possible to write fantasy without being influenced in some way by the real world, and something as simple as the choice to place a given character within one of your imagined cultures could be seen as appropriating history and placing your own judgements on it. With stuff like this the motives of the author are probably important, but that's not always apparent to the reader.

    Complicating the matter further is the fact that history is a much more malleable, disputed thing than we're taught to believe in school. It's a narrative that's created to 'make sense' of past events, and historians emphasise some events over others, and assign causality so that the narrative make sense to their own worldview. They base their narratives on primary evidence, from people who witnessed the event from their perspective, and secondary evidence from scholars who applied their own views to the collection of evidence.

    But I think Kay's point was not that we as writers shouldn't do it, but that we should be aware of what we're saying, of the responsibilities we're taking on and the dangers of doing so. And I totally agree.

  7. Hendo:

    I don't believe Kay or Glenda say that you shouldn't write fantasy using historical information as an influence, rather, try not to write historical fiction and parade it as 'fact'.

    – Amanda Pillar

  8. Exactly, Amanda. I use cultural influences all the time. I might one day even model my characters on a real life person (although I have not as yet, not to any large degree).

    If I was writing a historical novel, I would – at least on some level – people it with persons once living.

    Where I agree with Kay is that this involves some responsibility. Jo mentioned Heyer, who wrote books – fiction – which sometimes gave quite large roles to people like the Duke of Wellington or other real personages. She put speech into their mouths. BUT whatever they said was absolutely in character with what we know about them, through their writings, their deeds or what observers saw or heard.

    What Kay objects to, and I do to, is using these people as PoV characters, as if we are inside their heads, thinking their thoughts…becoming intimate with them as if we were them. Well, we aren't. And we shouldn't imply that we have this inner knowledge when we don't, even if the book is fiction.

    You are absolutely right, Hendo – history changes depending on what sources we have and who is viewing them. To me, that is all the more reason why we shouldn't pretend we are the historical personage, knowing what went on in their heads. It implies an intimacy that never existed.

    Cultural appropriation is something that arouses deep passions. My personal feeling? If I want to use another culture, and call it by its true name, or imply that it is true representation, then it had better be damn accurate.

    If I appropriate it and call it something else, then it is mine to do what I like with – as long as I make it clear it is not real.

    Writing alternate history is something else again, but at least everyone knows that this is not a true representation, any more than there are really fairies at the bottom of my garden.

    I guess it all boils down to being honest.

  9. I'm with you and GGK on all counts, Glenda. It is disrespectful to put people into stories and give them words and actions that they did not speak or do. Kay sidesteps the problem neatly by creating an imaginary world that is obviously based on medieval Europe and even has some of the same characters – but the place names and personal names are different. Jacqueline Carey does something similar, although her characters are purely fictional AFAIK. In both cases, readers are treated to great stories that are free to be as imaginative as the writer chooses, even to the use of magic.

    I don't mind watching movies based on history but I get angry when they depart from the known facts:-(

  10. Apologies Amanda, and Glenda, I didn't mean to suggest that an author shouldn't do anything, just that they should be aware of these issues that we're discussing. I don't think it's possible to create a fantasy world without having some level of influence from our world sneaking in.

    I agree though, authors should either strive for the same level of accuracy that historians aspire to, or make it very clear that they're presenting a fictional account. It's fairly standard these days for historical fiction to have an acknowledgements page that lists the author's sources and explains any deviations that they may have made.

  11. Hendo, that's sort of fine with me, although I must admit I would still feel queasy about say, fiction that turns Winston Churchill into a raging paedophile or Florence Nightingale into a sadist. There is a limit to what I think can be sanitised by a blithe, "Oh, but this is all fiction, you know."

    Really, Sharyn? Lol…! Maybe that's the ultimate accolade for the writers/director/actors? I must admit I have been taken aback by people who think that the moment you use first person narrative, you the author are the character.

    Is that why two of my first person narrators have been tall athletic types with great hairdos? Not.


  12. Thanks for the link, Glenda! I appreciate it. You do know Kay has a new one due out next year? I believe in April. It's called "Under Heaven."

  13. YIKES! I just read the article and the resulting comments. My God, we are a screwed up people. (Shakes her head.) Some of what I read five minutes ago still makes me tremble with disgust. Entitlement is too little of a word for what some of the readers suggest. I'm too disturbed to continue.

  14. Hmmm. I hadn't read the comments. I think a number of the commentators just didn't get the distinction that I thought Kay made: there's a vast difference between a) having a real-person character in a novel seen through the eyes of other not-real characters – and b) getting inside that real-person and dealing with his/her thoughts and intimacies.
    To me, one is fine, the other dubious.

    And I would say too, there's a vast difference between a) writing a novel after loads of research and trying to make the representation of a real-person character as close to what we know about his life – and b) making something up about the real-person which you know or guess to be untrue in order to further your plot.

  15. Yes, a vast difference. I got so upset I stopped reading and so I'm not sure if they didn't catch what he meant or if they don't care about the distinctions he made. I got the feeling – at least with a lot of them – that it was the latter.

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