Putting Real People in your Historical Fantasy

Recently, I attended the Writers’ Digest Book Conference in NYC, and one of the panels that resonated with me was The Thin Line Between Historical Fact & Fiction moderated by authors Crystal King and Anjali Mitter Duva. They posed some interesting questions. Here are a few:

When is it beneficial to use real people in fiction? Are there rules? Can you make a good person into a dubious character—a villain even? How much can you bend the “real” history? Is there any instance it would be unwise to use a real person, or a time you might go too far?

In my Witch of the Cards, set in 1932 I injected multiple real life characters: Salvador Dali, Elsa Schiaparelli, Irene Ware and Bela Lugosi to name a few. They were mainly in the scenes aboard the Morro Castle ocean liner that sailed from Manhattan to Cuba. I wanted to show that even during Prohibition, the glitterati of high society found a way to drink. The laws that held on solid ground, were not punishable when on the high seas, or in Cuba. I also put these creative souls in to lighten the dark days that my poor character Peter Dune endured. He got to party with these folks and lounge on a Cuban beach. Who wouldn’t want to party with the madcap Dali?
Dickens at work
I am now crafting a fantasy set in 1854 Philadelphia and so far I have decided on two characters from real life. One is Charles Dickens and the other is Thomas Mutter. In addition to writing great novels, Dickens wrote an infamous treatise on the cruelty of solitary confinement in prisons. This, after he toured the supposedly humane Eastern State Penitentiary, where my girl, Evalina is serving a sentence. You see, during that time, people believed that forced isolation was a humane way to treat prisoners. But soon, people discovered that it made prisoners go mad. Dicken’s scathing article helped illuminate this. Mutter is most well-known for his strange collection of medical anomalies. Yet, more importantly, he invented cutting edge (pardon the pun!) plastic surgery techniques still used today, like the Mutter flap. Can you tell that my novel will have shady medicine in it?! Uh, huh.

So, the upshot is that one should think deeply about who and WHY they want to write real folks into their historical fantasies. Some benefits are:
*Grounding the story historically and vividly.
*Opening out a period of time in order to look at it from a fresh vantage point.
*Giving a side character his or her due. (Similar to Fan Fic)
*Imagining an alternative history.
*Giving an entire period of history its due using people from the time.
*Imagining two peers who never atually met. Having them meet and carry out a friendship, a love relationship, a rivalry, a freaking crime!

It’s fun to think of angles, right? Can you think of more reasons to utilize real historical characters? Have you ever wanted to put a real person from history into your stories? If so, who might be the most fun? The most unnerving?


  1. I like seeing real people in fiction for all the reasons you list. I also like seeing their characters twisted, but would have problems if Hitler became a hero. Some prejudices are hard to shift.

  2. I do like when authors put real people into their fiction and have all the historical facts right, but twist it some to make it something else! I've always wondered what the real lives of Poe and Lovecraft might have been like as there is mystery around their lives.

    1. agree. And as far as Poe, he DID have a house in Philly at the time of my novel, and I was toying around with putting him in too. But it would have to be organic to the plot, and I was also thinking that he might overshadow the other players. Maybe he deserves his own novel. LOL.

  3. It's fun to see historical people make their way into historical fiction. It's probably easier to keep the person a little more closer to historical fact than changing them drastically, but then again, people are more complicated than how they appear in history.

  4. Cherie, yes, to change a real historical figure drastically the author would have to have a truly compelling reason!!!

  5. I love historical fiction. Adding a known person makes the audience go 'aha', and brings up images for them. I'd think. I think it makes a person keep reading to see if there's something they didn't know about that person.

  6. I like reading historical fiction with real people from the time period as long as history isn't drastically changed. Dickens is my favorite Victorian era author. All of his books held a social message. When his father went to debtors prison, the rest of his family joined him there while Dickens worked (he was only 12 years old--he wrote another paper against child labor). I would imagine he saw enough of that to know how bad solitary confinement would be.


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