Discussion Posts

Discussion: Inserting Characters into Real History

Hi there book bees! To start with, I’ll explain what it is I mean by my title. I’m discussing historical fiction novels that focus on real events, places, and people but have a protagonist that has been invented by the author and placed into these events. These protagonists are often based on a mix of real historical figures, or at least inspired by the looks and events in the lives of real people. They interact with a variety of real historical figures, often playing a minor or “secret” role in the events they experience.

Examples of these kinds of stories are novels about a servant to a real king or queen, someone whose story wouldn’t have been significant enough to be told outside of fiction. These characters usually have brushes with major historical events and react to them realistically, inspired by research conducted by the author on what may have happened to any number of faceless participants in history. They may be entirely unknown to the historical figures they interact with, or they may be somewhat special to them but in a way that wouldn’t have been recorded at the time.

Famous examples of this kind of protagonist include Forrest Gump, whose entire story revolves around being involved with major historical events on accident or tangentially without warranting a recording of his fictional life in its entirety.

This type of story is different to anonymous historical fiction, which takes place in a real period of time but includes an entirely fictional cast of characters. While historical fiction can be quite realistic and the characters may feel real, or be based slightly on real figures discovered during research by the author, the brushes with any famous or infamous events or people are just that, brushes. An “insert” story focuses on these events and people more firmly, creating a character version of them that suits the author’s purpose.

To better explain this topic, I’ll present the book that’s inspired this post: The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee. Minor spoiler warning ahead. I don’t intend to spoil anything major from the book, but I will be mentioning a handful of characters and events that are in the story that potential readers of the book may wish to not know just yet.

The Queen of the Night follows a protagonist whose name is Lilliet Berne (at the time of the story). Lilliet begins her story as if it were simply historical fiction, explaining that she is a famous opera singer in Paris following the fall of the Second Empire whose life is shrouded in mystery from the rest of society. She begins to recall the events that led her to Paris and to the opera as a result of discovering someone else has shared a fraction of her story. Lilliet traveled from America, both on purpose and on accident, and tried on a variety of masks and identities to get to where she is now. Some of these identities included serving the Empress Eugenie as a dresser, knowing the Empress intimately enough to warrant minor attentions from her and to play a role in the fall of the Empire. As the events of the Siege of Paris and the fall of the Second Empire unfolded, Lilliet was there playing a surprisingly major role in what occurred. However, Lilliet is in actuality a fictional character. Spoiler Warning Ends.

I’ve read a few books like this, in which an otherwise fictional character plays a major role in real historical events. Popular in the YA genre are Kerri Maniscalco’s Stalking Jack the Ripper books, which begin with two fictional forensic investigators participating in the infamous manhunt for the killer in the Whitechapel case. A middle grade book called The Lacemaker and the Princess features a young girl who makes lace for the royals residing in Versailles and is swept up by the family in the face of the French Revolution. Books such as these often reimagine historical figures in order to suit them to the story that’s being told, giving them personalities that the authors themselves imagine they may have had.

These stories are often entertaining, but sometimes can be confusing. You can usually find questions about the nature of the stories–and whether or not the characters in them were real people–on the Internet from curious readers, and in cases where the author bends reality to better suit fiction there are certainly confusing moments for the historian in some of us. Nevertheless, a well written series of events involving a fictional insert into real history can be fascinating and inspire the readers to research and better know historical events.

I’d like to hear from all of you in the comments: Do you like fictional inserts into historical events? What are some of your favorite stories that do this? Or, if you don’t so much enjoy this, what is an example of it being poorly done?

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By Catherine

I'm a lover of books, coffee, wine, and bees. Happy to join the ranks of book bloggers everywhere!

One reply on “Discussion: Inserting Characters into Real History”

This is a really interesting subgenre that I haven’t really considered before. I think one of my favourite novels to use this device is Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn, which tells the story of the design and creation of the famous tapestries of the same name – she invents a whole cast of characters around the making of the tapestries, although in reality no one knows who the artists or craftsmen were. I also own loads of novels featuring servants or other characters dropped into the Tudor Court – too many to count!

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