A Legend Should Never Be Dimmed

This post was brought on by two things, as usual: my father and a book.  Since who says I can’t be logical sometimes, I’ll start with the former.

Now, my father is a big opera fan; he’s always appreciated opera, a trait he inherited from his mother.  Moreover, he’s a huge Luciano Pavarotti fan and almost shows emotion when he speaks of his death.  He’s not someone who you would call starstruck, but he greatly admired the legend that was Luciano Pavarotti.  Understandably, he was quite outraged when it came out that Pavarotti’s last performance at the Torino Olympic ceremony in 2006 was lip-synched.  At the time, he said something that still haunts me:

“That should never have come out.  A legend should never be dimmed.”

Okay, now for the book.  I was reading a book about a man I have always greatly admired for his leadership and political savvy: Julius Caesar.  It was a very well researched, well written biography of the man and it not only focused on the public persona Caesar adopted, but also the lecherous, cold man behind it.  Now, I always knew Caesar was a womanizer.  Who doesn’t?  But it came as a great shock that this great general, great politician and loyal friend was a truly horrible man in his personal life.  As I read of his exploits, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a not-so-fun time in my life when a man of similar appetites pursued me relentlessly to the point where I was a complete nervous wreck.  Obviously I didn’t look up to my tormentor, so how could I look up to a man who had done much, much worse things?

These two incidents bring up very important questions for historical fiction writers: How do you create a balance between the man and the legend?  Should you let readers see the ugly truth at the risk of alienating them?  Should the truth come out in fiction?

I’m a great believer in telling the truth no matter what.  I’ve been hurt too many times by people concealing the truth from me out of some misguided sense that the truth would hurt more than a lie.  A kind lie is still a lie and it only makes the truth hurt more when it does, inevitably, come to light.  Still, it’s not nice to hear that your hero was a horrible person in their personal life or that in reality they didn’t accomplish half of the deeds attributed to them.  So what should a writer do when they write historical fiction?

Scales of Justice

1.  Strike a balance.

It’s hard, but not impossible, to write about a character who is a great public figure but a terrible person.  Although Conn Iggulden softened Caesar’s image in his series, I think he did a good job balancing Caesar the Womanizer with Caeasr the Beloved Leader.  He even managed to somewhat sympathetically portray Genghis Khan, a man who slaughtered 23-40 million people.

Part of the challenge of writing historical fiction is making legends come alive.  Does that mean they should be portrayed in glowing terms?  No, of course not.  I believe that historical fiction should come as close to the truth as is humanly possible, but also tell a decent story.

Contradiction

2.  Characters can be contradictory—to a point.

People are contradictory in real life.  We say one thing and do another, act one way in one situation, then do a complete 180 in a similar situation.  It’s okay for characters in historical fiction to be less than consistent in all situations, but the audience can only stand so much jumping around.  I admit that is quite a vague suggestion, but part of writing is listening to your inner reader and seeing things from your perspective if you were reading.  Part of the problem with contradiction comes from the real historical figures themselves, who were of course, human.  The real challenge as a writer is explaining these things from the character’s point of view so they seem logical at the time.

Arthur and Merlin

3.  Don’t be afraid to tackle a legend.

This is where my opinions definitely diverge with those of my father.  He believes certain legendary figures should just be left alone, whereas I believe there is nothing wrong with examining their lives.  If you want to write historical fiction and you find a legend that interests you, you should not be afraid to attempt writing about them.  Take Cleopatra, for instance.  She’s been written about for centuries and there are literally thousands of books featuring her as a prominent or main character.  Lots of authors have had their take on Cleopatra, so why should you even bother?

For one thing, you may be able to offer an unique perspective on the figure.  Was Cleopatra actually a heartless woman and not as sensitive as some writers portray her?  Even if one perspective has been done already, it doesn’t mean it was done well or you don’t have anything new to offer on that particular perspective.  A subgenre like Cleopatra fiction could be considered crowded, but if you are the one author a newbie picks up when they enter that genre, you stand a great chance of doing well.  Who knows?  The teenage love triangle angle had been done to death long before Twilight, but it still achieved an insane level of popularity.  Sometimes it’s a matter of luck and skill.

Truth

So what do you think?  Should a legend be dimmed if it means the truth of their deeds gets out?  Should historical fiction writers tackle “already done” characters like Cleopatra, Caesar and Elizabeth I?  Do you think it’s important to strike a balance between the truth and a good story?  Why or why not?

2 comments

  1. Andy Szpuk

    I think the truth, and the fact that someone from history wasn’t all ‘good’ makes them seem more human, so I’m all for the ‘warts and all’ approach. I don’t read biographies these days, but Albert Goldman’s biography of John Lennon (1988) was controversial because of his portrayal of the man. I’ve never been a huge Beatles or Lennon fan, so maybe it was easier for me, but despite the negative portrayal, I actually grew to ‘admire’ Lennon more, because, as I said earlier, he seemed more real and more human.

    • Carrie Slager

      I never really thought of it that way, but that makes a lot of sense. People are flawed, but when you put it like that, you’re right: the flaws of famous people make them more human, more accessible. It’s nice to know that everyone, even your heroes screw up. Thanks for the perspective!

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