Real People in Historical Fiction by Martha Marks

Posted by on Dec 31, 2012 in Ancient Rome, Featured Book | 9 comments

Historical fiction is exciting to write because it offers opportunities to explore a different world from the one we live in. Inventing characters to fit into distant places and times is mostly fun, but mixing fictional characters with people who actually lived in another era ups the ante, not only with creative challenges but with a responsibility to abide by the historical reality.

Invented characters must be true to the times in which they are placed. A fifteenth-century damsel can’t go off to her job as a news broadcaster. But as long as we avoid anachronisms and don’t engage our characters in activities that couldn’t or wouldn’t have happened in the time and place we’re writing about, we’re free to have them say, do, and be whatever we please.

Not so when bringing real people to life in fiction. They’ve been written about already in contemporary records, history texts, and/or earlier works of fiction. Their existence was noted at the time they lived, with some degree of accuracy, if not always objectivity. Their lives, deeds, personalities, and manner of death (place, time, cause, etc) are often well known. We cannot tamper with those things.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t use our creative vision to flesh them out. In fact, if we choose to include them in our fiction, we must flesh them out. Cardboard characters, real or invented, are of no interest to anybody. So we pour over the history books in search of the living people we seek to portray, then exercise our best talents to make them seem as “real” as they were in life.

In Rubies of the Viper, my mystery/suspense novel set in first-century Rome, the protagonist (Theodosia) and most of the supporting cast are invented, but six historical people also play important roles.

Four of those are future emperors at the start of the novel: Nero, Otho, Vespasian, and Vespasian’s elder son, Titus. Their lives, personalities, and characteristics are well documented. (Vespasian’s younger son, the future Emperor Domitian, appears in one scene as a small child. Even though he doesn’t speak, I did my best to suggest the man he would become.)

I saw my role as recreating these future emperors as fully as possible without altering their true stories and essential natures. It was a challenge to start with the historical facts about each one and imagine how—on his rise to the pinnacle of power—he might have acted, talked, and related to Theodosia.

Nero actually was a pampered, self-indulgent prince, but he might by turns be bored, charming, treacherous, and (as emperor) merciless to Theodosia.

Otho actually was a blue-blooded patrician, but his ambition, ego, and boorish behavior might cause trouble for Theodosia.

Vespasian actually was a low-born soldier with an irreverent tongue, but he became a general and a national hero through organizational skills that might serve Theodosia in time of need.

Titus actually was “mankind’s darling” (according to one Roman historian), but he might see Theodosia as a stepping-stone on his way to the top.

With the two real women in my novel, Poppaea and Flavia, it was great fun to be creative.

Poppaea actually did manage to marry both Otho and Nero, and her life as Nero’s empress is well documented. I was able to build her character to suit my needs, based on her historical reputation as a beautiful, manipulative, and ambitious woman.

Vespasian’s daughter plays a pivotal role in the book, but since she—the historical Flavia—was barely noticed in her time and died young, I had almost nothing to go by. So I was free to create an impish, bubbly, and clever teenager who adores her father and brother and becomes Theodosia’s best friend.

Could another author portray these six “real people” in a different way? Of course. Many already have, and many more will do so in the future. But no author can deviate from their essential natures (by turning Otho into a sweet, lovable man, for example) or the basic facts of their lives. And that remains one of an historical fiction writer’s greatest challenges: creating well-developed characters who function nicely in the context of a novel while remaining true to their historical selves.

Martha Marks, December 31, 2012  Post originally appeared in The Purple Parchment.


  1. Despite the extra research involved, I, too, love using historical figures in my novels! And I heartily agree–we have to stay true to the natures and basic facts of those historical figures. A story that takes liberties with real facts that we know about real people gets an immediate black mark in my book. Not to say we can’t fill in the blanks, though, as you did.

    I’m currently polishing a novel about a real, though minor, historical figure–one of those “footnote people” in history. About 50 years ago, someone actually wrote a novel about this same man–and chose to mess unforgivably with the facts that are well enough known about him (and which that author undoubtedly had access to). Absolutely infuriating–I nearly tossed the book across the room–although my consolation is that my novel is going to be a lot better than his. 😉

  2. Very well said! Do you think you have more leeway to be creative because you’re working with the ancient world? Is the responsibility to historical record the same, no matter how far we go back?

    • Thanks, Jessica, for your thumbs-up comment. Sorry to be slow in responding. I’ve just come back to this page after a few days away.

      While creativity is always in order when writing fiction, I do think we have to be faithful to what we know of an individual’s actual life, even someone who lived two thousand years ago.

      One can take some liberties, of course, as I did in portraying Vespasian’s two older children (Titus and Flavia) as about 2-3 years older than they actually were in the years my story takes place. Without that minor adjustment, the story wouldn’t have worked. And in my Historical Note at the end of the book, I did “fess up” to what I had done and explained why. Nobody has objected, and I don’t think anybody would. Somebody’s exact age in a given year in the first century A.D. just isn’t that big a deal.

      It does get harder, of course, the further back in time one goes, because the documentation isn’t always good. Sometimes (as in the case of Flavia, it just isn’t there at all.

      And we do have to consider the problem of “unreliable sources,” people who may have had an ax to grind about some powerful or wealthy individual. But that’s also true about our modern times, too. Just more proof that the more things change, the more they stay the same!

  3. I’ve had readers tell me they were ready not to like my Simon & Elizabeth mysteries, for all the reasons you outline above. I think that careful “fleshing out” is allowable and fun for readers.

    Authors have to keep in mind whose “history” we’re using as research, too. Just like today’s Hollywood gossip circuit, courts of other times were rife with factions who said evil things about each other, silly people who believed everything they heard, and those who had their own reasons for saying rotten things (like Shakespeare, for example).

  4. I agree with the comments by both Susanne and Peg. We writers often carry the weight of what others wrote before us. If they did a good job with the same subjects we have chosen, readers may be favorably disposed toward our newer works. If what they wrote was not so great, especially if they botched the history, we have a doubly difficult job to do: first to convince them to take another stab at reading such a work, and second to make sure our own books are significantly better than the previous one(s).

    As regards Peg’s comment about court (and other) factions who perhaps did not report the facts as honestly as they should/could have (can anybody alive today imagine that?????), I recently read a marvelous novel by British mystery author Josephine Tey.

    Tey wrote a slew of fine books before her death in the early 1950s, but this particular one had to be exceptional. Called THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, it’s about a 20th century London detective who, to avoid going crazy while laid up in a hospital bed for weeks, sets about solving a four-hundred-year-old mystery from English history.

    If anybody wants to see exactly what Peg was getting at–the problem of unreliable sources–read Tey’s THE DAUGHTER OF TIME. You will love it, and you’ll learn a lot too.

  5. I had an advantage creating a story in a more recent period of history (though some might argue that it is not history, I believe the historical significance of the Cuban revolution is well established). Thus, I had the advantage of reliable records of the writings and speeches of my historical personages such as Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Fulgencio Batista, and Ernest Hemingway. I placed their own words into their mouths and had my fictional characters respond. This process helped insure the historical accuracy of my work.

    • Jack, you’re lucky in writing about a period so close to our own, with such an abundance of first-person testimony to pour over. Sounds like a most interesting period to be working on, too!

      I’m old enough to remember the Cuban Revolution but don’t recall too many details. Your book will fill a gap for people today who need to understand a situation that began over 50 years ago but still exists today. Good luck with your books!

  6. Another great post, Martha.

    I always wonder: What IS the true story? What do we really have to go by–especially when it comes to ancient history? Fragments. And few of these fragments are written from a woman’s point-of-view. History is a puzzle, and many of the puzzle’s pieces are long forgotten or were never included. Even when the past is well documented, who can really know a person’s truth?

    • Hi Suzanne, and thanks for your praise for my post. It’s always good to hear from a fellow researcher and writer delving into the ancient world!

      Yes, lack of sources is a big problem, so sometimes it isn’t even a question of reliable or unreliable. And sources aren’t there at all to tell us much about the daily lives of lesser mortals such as women, slaves, the poor, etc.

      The personalities, appearance, and actions of those four historical men I wrote about in Rubies of the Viper, who all went on to be emperors of Rome, certainly are well documented. Doesn’t mean everything written about them is accurate, but the composite of information left to us does give some generally consistent details.

      But, as you point out, not with the women. Very little is known even of Nero’s Empress, Poppaea Sabina, who appears as a character in my novel and your (Vestal Virgin), and yet she’s one of the best-documented women of her time. We can only work with what we have, and where the history goes blank, as with Flavia, we just have to fill in those gaps as best we can.