Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fact in Fiction, or Fiction in Fact?

My last panel – and my favorite! This one discussed balancing history and fiction, which is something all hist-fic authors worry about.
The moderator asked the writers which was easier: to write about fictional characters, or real people?
Sandra Worth said fictional is easier because she has the freedom to take pieces of people who existed, and then do what she wants. It’s like a diving board; climbing the ladder is doing the research and diving into the water is the writing.
“I love that freedom,” she said. “Writing historical fiction is taking a series of facts and telling how things went from one point to another. Discovering the facts is the best part.”
Chris Gortner, on the other hand, said fictional work is harder. Real people give him structure, whereas with fictional characters, he has to come up with the plot, psychology, and motivation on his own. He described it as making his own roadmap. Still, he loves the freedom of writing about someone who isn’t well-known.
They discussed what to do when there isn’t much information available about a real person. Donna Woolfolk Cross called this a “skeleton story”; the novel has to put flesh on an obscure topic.
Donna had a skeleton story with Pope Joan, which is about a woman who became pope. She had one little fact that would have only made sense if she developed an intricate sub-plot. While the sub-plot isn’t in the history books, this snippet of a clue gave her an insight into Joan’s life that completely transformed the book.
If you want to know more, scroll down and highlight the white space under “Spoiler Alert.”
She felt having a character who isn’t well known gives the writer a lot of freedom.
I had the same experience with Sacred Fire. Each of my characters only take up a paragraph or two in the history books, so I had to base their personalities off of very little information. It was actually a lot of fun, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
The moderator asked, “When you have to create a character from scratch, what do you look to create? What facts do you need?”
Karleen Koen said, “I look for someone who is believable to me. In the first draft, characters feel like cartoons who need to be filled in. I’m always looking for an outward story and an inward story that captures me. If it captures me, I just trust that it will capture you. It’s important to give the character flesh and blood with flaws and virtues. I have to think of what facts were going around that I can use, but for me, I just want the person to feel real and have problems like I have problems.”
An audience member asked about fudging facts.
Chris Gortner said if you can’t make something completely true, at least make it plausible. Don’t fudge so much that you end up with an alternative history.
Sandra Worth said, “I don’t call it ‘fudging.’ I call it ‘fiction.’” Everyone chuckled.

SPOILER ALERT (highlight white space)
All sources agree that Joan died in childbirth. Donna said, “The obvious question is, who knocked her up?” If anyone discovered Pope Joan was a woman she would have been killed, so there’s no way her affair was just a casual sexual encounter. It would only make sense if she and her lover had a deep, romantic relationship. Her pregnancy – a tiny fact in history books – helped Cross make educated guesses about Joan’s character and her life.
If you haven’t read that book yet, I highly recommend it.

1 comment:

  1. Piecing a character together can be one of the most exciting, rewarding, and complex tasks of writing. Using your own mind to emulate the mind of someone unlike you... that ability is uniquely human; I think it's one of the things that makes us what we are.

    Great post.


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