When I was a kid, we had a set of Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedias. Somehow, I absconded with them and claimed them as my own, I suppose because nobody else in the house used them. They sat on my largest shelf, in my closet, and whenever I was bored or curious, I'd pull one of the volumes down and read about faraway places and events of long ago. Sometimes I'd lose myself for hours in those musty pages. The advantage to this odd hobby of reading reference material for entertainment later resulted in me becoming part of the high school quiz team and someone who was, for awhile, mildly obsessed with Trivial Pursuit because it was the one board game that could hold my attention.
More than anything, I became intrigued with historical figures: Richard I, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Cleopatra . . . When I discovered Jean Plaidy's historical fiction and her series on the Plantagenets, I was in heaven. Later, much later, I decided to write fiction revolving around prominent historical figures. I find it utterly fascinating to take known facts, read a variety of interpretations by non-fiction writers, and then develop my own understanding of what motivated them, what their fears, hopes and dreams were. You begin to realize that it's not always easy to comprehend why they did what they did - and a big part of that is because morals, gender roles, social rules and expectations and politics and religion were so vastly different in the past from what they are now.
Since putting some of my writing in public view, what I've further come to discover is that tackling biographical historical fiction is a tricky business. Some people love it. Some don't like it at all - maybe they find it boring, overdone, or they approach it with expectations that are so rigid, that it would be nearly impossible for any writer to deliver a proper rendition that would please them. I've occasionally heard that it's difficult to do biographical fiction well. But how is this any different than writing about a completely fictional character? Either the story is engaging to the reader - or it isn't.
Previous portrayals of a historical figure - be it in books or movies - can affect people's opinions of that person. And that can be a high wall for any writer to overcome. I'm constantly challenged by readers' perceptions of Robert the Bruce, as many people believe he betrayed William Wallace, which he did not. I honestly didn't realize when I began writing about real people how strong those preconceived opinions can be. Or how vocal some history buffs can be about them. No matter what light you paint a real person of the past in - or even a group of people or a particular event- it's bound to get someone's dander up.
I'm curious to know how some of my blog readers feel about this. Do you read biographical fiction or prefer not to? Does it depend on the writing? Do you go into it with an open mind? Have you ever put a book down because it contrasted too much with what you believed that person to be? Have you ever read a novel that totally changed your understanding of a real person?