Biographical fiction is the art of bringing historical figures back to life. Effective biographical fiction can turn a name in the history books into a person so vivid, complex and yet comprehensible that history itself becomes more understandable. Good biographical fiction provides insight into the psychology of real historical characters and can help explain the historical events these people shaped by explaining the motives and character traits that drove them to play the role they did in history.
Writing biographical fiction requires all the skills necessary for writing historical fiction – and more. You need to maintain a balance between action, dialogue and description. You need to write effectively to be able to evoke scenes and environments with which the reader is not automatically familiar (the past!). And you need to have done your homework and really know about the historical period and society in which your book is set. In addition, you must know everything there is to know about the subject/central character – and the historical figures with whom he/she interacted. Thus, research in biographical fiction not only enables a novelist to produce a vivid environment – an effective and colorful stage on which the characters can act, but provides the story-line, plot and to a large extent the cast of characters as well.
Yet even two completely accurate, non-fictional biographies can produce radically different images of the subject. There are always gaps in the historical record, phases of a person’s life that were not meticulously recorded, or events so controversial that multiple – even conflicting – versions of them exist. Unless the subject of a biography also kept diaries of their thoughts and doings every day of his/her life, there is also the challenge of trying to understand motives for recorded actions. Yet even if the subject of the biography did keep diaries or write letters, there is the issue of how honest or self-serving such documents are. Biographers fill in the gaps, select which of several competing accounts of events seems most plausible and speculate about motives and emotions not recorded. Non-fictional biographers do this openly by discussing the different possible interpretations and explaining the reasoning for their analysis of the character's actions and motives. Novelists do this by turning their portrayal into a novel.
Another way of looking at it is to see the historical record is the skeleton of the biographical novel. Without it, you have no substance – and no credibility. But most readers do not want to read about skeletons, certainly not inert ones: they want characters with flesh and blood, with faces, emotions, dreams and fears.
So you need to research more than the life of your subject, you need to understand their family background, their profession (and that of their parents), the customs and contemporary culture of the society they lived in, the legal system to which they were subject, the technology and fashions of the age, and more. And you need to know about the other historical figures who influenced them: their parents, siblings, spouses, colleagues, superiors and subordinates, opponents and rivals.
If you understand the environment in which a person lived and the relationships your protagonist had, you will find it is easier to understand why your subject acted in certain ways, what he/she was likely to have felt in certain situations, and even begin to understand the fears and inhibitions that might have warped and hindered the protagonist. If you understand enough about the environment and relationships of your subject, you are half-way to developing a complete character, with not only a skeleton but a face, a mind, and spirit as well. An excellent example of this is Sharon Kay Penman’s biographical novel of Richard III. She effectively explains King Richard III by showing how his childhood relationships with his brothers and his Neville cousins made him the man he became. The Sunne in Splendour is historical biographical fiction at its best.
With good research, then, you can establish the plot line of your biographical novel and acquire the knowledge necessary to create the scenery and backdrop in which the plot unfolds. With good research you can give the skeleton meat and animate it with emotions. But now it gets tricky. Biographical fiction strives to be not only a record of history (in this case a historical personality), but also a work of art – and that means that you may have to deviate – carefully, selectively and strategically – from the historical record.
Let me give an example from the world of painting. There is only one known (or surviving) painting of Isabella the Catholic, Queen of Castile, which was painted during her life time by an artist who may have met her. It is not a very good painting; it is stiff and lifeless, dark and almost amateurish. There are also many portrayals of Isabella by artists, who did not know what she looked at all. These later works may not as accurately depict Isabella’s physical features, yet they may capture her spirit in that they make the viewer see aspects of Isabella’s known personality – her piety combined with iron will etc. etc.
This explains how different works of biographical fiction about the same subject can be very different, yet equally good. Is Schiller or Shaw’s Joan of Arc better? I cannot say off-hand which historians would choose as more accurate, but I do know that both – regardless of which is more accurate – are great works of biographical fiction.
Creating a work of art requires clarity of purpose, consistency of style, a proper use of light and dark, and it will require not only extrapolating and interpreting but some outright falsification. It is almost always necessary to create some fictional characters – servants or friends, lovers or rivals – that serve as foils for highlighting character traits, explain later (known) behavior or provide contrast necessary to give the central character deeper contours. However, from my experience as a writer of non-fictional biography (Codename Valkyrie: General Olbricht and the Plot Against Hitler) and biographical fiction (the Leonidas of Sparta trilogy, my current work on Balian d’Ibelin, and unfinished work on Edward the Black Prince), the greatest challenge for the novelist is paring away or condensing some of the known facts or making conscious changes in the historical record in order to produce a clearer, more compelling, central character.
The risks of making changes are enormous – and someone is bound to catch you on them. But the risks of not making surgical edits are even greater: you can end up with a tome no one wants to read. To take another example from the works of Sharon Kay Penman, I feel her biographical novel about Richard I, Lionheart, fails to live up to her biographical novel about Richard III precisely because she put in too many facts and too many characters. As a result she failed to give us a clear the novel clear focus and Richard gets lost in all the action and subplots and sketches of other historical characters, few of whom come to life on their own. If you are writing about a person so fascinating that he/she inspired you to write a whole novel about them, then the greatest disservice you can do them is build them a monument that collapses under its own weight and complexity.
Keep in mind that when resurrecting the dead, we raise the spirit not the body. The spirit, not each pound of flesh or each wrinkle on the face, is what we wish our readers and future generations to understand and honor. And spirits are always ethereal, elusive – and not quite real.