Exploring the Lives of Real Historical Figures by N. Gemini Sasson

Posted by on Aug 14, 2012 in Historical Research, Medieval Europe | 7 comments

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, (The Bruce Trilogy) 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 (Isabeau) 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.

N. Gemini Sasson, August 14, 2012


  1. I’ve been doing some reading on Lizzie Borden. Her story really underscores how thoroughly popular legend can obscure the truth.

  2. Love your books, in fact I’m saving your latest to read on our trip to take youngest daughter to college. I agree with your article in that when we see inside other peoples heads and/or hearts, we often view their actions differently. When the person is as influential as a king or rular of some sort, their actions often are so much more far-reaching than a peasant or mere subject of a kingdom. Please keep up the good work, I look forward to reading more of your work!

    • Thanks so much, Kate! Yes, viewing their outward actions and understanding their reasoning, reactions, motivations, etc. are two very different challenges.

  3. Very interesting, Beverle. She is someone I’ve never looked into in depth, yet I’ve certainly heard the legendary tale. Legends are the result of oral storytelling. Sort of like today’s media ‘buzz’ over certain celebrities, the personality gets spun larger than life. The further back in history we go, the more the line between fact and legend becomes obscured, because there were no news journalists and people didn’t keep diaries. It would be interesting to go back in time and follow some of the notable figures around and get to know them better.

  4. Nice article, Gemi! Revisionist history is fun to explore. There are certainly quite a few historical characters who need dusting off and reevaluation. Like Lizzie Borden. Bev, do you think we’ll ever know the true scoop on her?

    I think King John I of England (the Magna Carta guy) is due for the revisionist spotlight. He wouldn’t come out squeaky clean from new scrutiny, but he’d for sure get some of the muck cleaned off him. People would find out that he was a much better ruler than that airhead brother of his, Richard the Lionhearted, who only spent a few months of his reign in England. The rest of the time, Richard was bankrupting the country: off on a Crusade, or imprisoned at some enemy noble’s estate as a hostage. You can sure see the hand of the Church in giving Richard’s reputation a facelift!

    In my third book, Camp Follower, I took on the challenge of “thoroughness and objectivity” by depicting Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton as human, not a bloodthirsty psychopath. If you examine supposedly accurate historical reports with an eye to forensics and logic, it’s pretty obvious when a story from the past is actually a tall tale.

    History is definitely written by the victors.

  5. I’m not sure I’d want to write historical fiction based on a real person, which Gemi does brilliantly. Perhaps I’d be too afraid of doing something wrong, of doing a disservice to the person. Not that I haven’t tried. Back in 1996 I started a book about Ralph Waldo Emerson meeting up with composer Hector Berlioz when Emerson was in Paris in the early 1830s. My head’s still spinning from all the research. It was easier to distill Napoleon’s character for his brief appearance in The Scattered Proud.

    • Thanks for stopping in everyone. I hope this has been a thought-provoking discussion. It was Jean Plaidy’s biographical novels that set me down on this track decades ago as a young reader.

      I agree, Gev. Tackling real historical figures can be understandably daunting. Sometimes readers already have set perceptions about that person before picking up a novel about them – although I do think most readers are open-minded. Differences in opinion come with the territory and as long as those differences are expressed respectfully, I don’t mind. Even with today’s Hollywood celebrities, prominent athletes or national political figures, we the public can all see the same news clips of them and have very different perceptions of that person.

      BTW, I bet a lot of people would be interested in Emerson. I have an 1898 copy of Emerson, Select Essays and Poems. I treasure it.