Friday, July 1, 2011

Do Historical Characters Have to be Famous?

 There was a lot of discussion at the conference over whether your book will only sell if you use Marquee Names (famous people everyone knows about, like Cleopatra).

I had no idea this was an issue. I actually dislike marquee names; I read historical fiction to learn about lives I’m not familiar with, and I have a fierce reluctance to say or read anything that’s been said before.
Not everyone’s like this. Someone at my work likes Henry the Eighth so much that she reads every book she can find about him. You’d think she’d get sick of hearing the same story over and over again.

At a marquee name panel, Margaret George pointed out that we’re a celebrity-conscious society. Most of us are drawn to famous people. Also, marquee gives readers a feeling of safety. If a reader liked one book about the Tudors, he knows he’ll enjoy reading another one. History is difficult for most people, said C.W. Gortner, so they like familiar stories.

Vanitha Sankaran was frustrated by this mindset. “People read fantasy and science fiction when they know nothing about the story. Why not history?”

C.W. Gortner said sometimes a marquee setting, like the Civil War, can be just as effective as a marquee character.

Someone asked if an author could start writing marquee names, build a platform, and then branch out. Susanne Dunlap said this doesn’t help. Publishers can decline a book – and often do – even after a writer is popular.

Dang. I always thought if you write a bestseller, you can do whatever you want.

Margaret George said if you want to pull away from marquee you should go for it, but be prepared to make less money. You might have to switch editors.

This is a great fear of mine. During another panel, Michelle Moran talked about getting “orphaned”; losing your agent or editor. I raised my hand and said, “I’m getting the sense this happens to everyone at some point in time. Doesn’t anyone stay together forever?”

They laughed and said that yes, getting orphaned is pretty common.
Susanne Dunlap said teenagers are more likely to read non-marquee names because they’re not familiar with the history anyway. All stories are new to them.

She also said a good hook is more important than marquee names or settings. “Nuns behaving badly” is a good non-marquee hook.

What kind of historical fiction do you prefer?


  1. I actually prefer history I don't know much about. I don't read a ton of historical fiction, but when I do, it's because I want to learn something new and fascinating, or the book sounds amazing. It doesn't matter to me if I've never heard of the historical figure before.

  2. Alternative historical fiction. It's like relearning history in an alternative universe... because it is.

  3. I've actually never even considered this before and historical fiction is one of my favorite genres.

    I generally read non-marquee historical fiction stories. I like stories about a fictional character set in a historical time period. But I certainly read stories about a marquee name, too.

  4. I enjoy either approach. The setting and story concept matter more to me than marquee or non. I enjoy non-marquee names for the flexibility: An author can invent all kinds of storylines within a historical context without being bound by the well-documented experiences of a real person. (That's also why I prefer to write this type of story.) It's especially interesting when a novelist can weave a fictitious character into major events and have them interact credibly with major figures, such as in Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe and Uhtred series, John Jakes's "North and South," and David Liss's "The Whiskey Rebels."

    At the same time, novels providing a sneak peek into the minds and hearts of real historical figures, such as Sharon Kay Penman's series on medieval English monarchs and C.W. Gortner's books, can provide fascinating new angles on important people whose true character is controversial or shrouded in mystery in the historical record.

  5. What a great post, Teralyn!

    I'm with Matt on this one -- using non-marquee characters gives you a lot more freedom with plot. I tend to use some minor historical figures as secondary characters though, and leave the famous ones as part of the background.

    I also tend to prefer reading non-marqee historical fiction. If I want to know about a famous historical person, I'll pick up a history book and not a novel. But then, I love history and have always loved reading it.

  6. Thanks for commenting on our panel, Teralyn! It was wonderful meeting you at the HNS Conference!

  7. Mary: I'm so glad you liked this post! It was great meeting you too!

  8. I read all sorts of historical fiction--marquee names and invented characters. But some of my favorites are often books with a mix of both.


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