While I have been writing historical fiction all my life, I only started to focus on biographical fiction after earning my PhD with a biography of General Friedrich Olbricht. Combining the skills of a biographer were those of a novelist is an even greater challenge than combing the skills of an historian with those of a novelist. History provides a context for fictional characters, but leaves the novelist almost infinite freedom to fit their characters into the general historical framework. Biographical fiction requires a higher degree of discipline and forces a novelist to operate within a more rigid structure. The rewards of evolving an internally consistent and legitimate interpretation of a historical figure are, however, almost indescribable.
The fact is, for most historical figues information about what went on inside their hearts and minds is scarce. We might have the odd letter or two, or if very lucky a diary, but the farther back in history a person lived, the less likely we are to have authentic, first-hand material. Most of what we know about historical figures was recorded at best by contemporary chroniclers, and more often by observers who lived decades or even centuries later. Many historical records come from foreign sources – Athenians writing about Sparta, Christian monks recording the raids of the Vikings, or Frenchmen decrying the atrocities of the English in the Hundred Years War. Even where we have contemporary, domestic sources, these may be hostile to the subject, for example the interrogation records of the Inquisition describing the Cathars or Gestapo memos on the German resistance to Hitler.
What this means is that the best information we have about historical figures is usually their actions. My father always told me to judge a man by what he did, not what he said, but this can be very difficult across the distance of 500 years or more. And, of course, in certain situations we cannot even be sure that deeds attributed to one personality or another were in fact committed by them. Did Richard III order the murder of his nephews or didn’t he? The sons of Edward IV disappeared while Richard III was king. Bones have been found that appear to match boys their age. Carbon dating suggests a date within the period of Richard’s short reign. Yet anyone familiar with the Richard III controversy knows there are powerful arguments against Richard’s guilt and a number of other historical figures, who could conceivably committed (or ordered) the murders.
In short, while a novelist writing biographical fiction has to keep to the known facts, he/she still has a great deal of leeway. In most cases, there is almost unlimited freedom when it comes to describing emotions and attitudes, and these in turn determine the nature of relationships and – ultimately – the character of an individual. With the identical set of facts, two good historical novelists could create equally convincing and yet virtually opposite characters. Sticking to my Richard III example: the bald fact is that Richard married Anne Neville, the widow of his arch-rival, the Lancastrian prince Edward. Depending on how one interprets this fact, he either forced himself on a helpless, grieving widow or he rescued his childhood sweetheart after her father bartered her into a hated first marriage.
It is all about interpretation, a phenomenon that actors will recognize well. In a play, the same actions, even the same lines, can be transformed by interpretation – and that is what makes writing biographical fiction so much fun.