Thursday, September 08, 2011

Real People as Characters

I've just finished reading "A Time to Cast Away Stones," by Tim Powers, a novella sequel to his innovative epic vampire novel THE STRESS OF HER REGARD, featuring an ancient silicon-based species of near-godlike predators. The novel and the story use the Romantic poets (mainly Byron, Keats, and Shelley) and some of their real-life associates as protagonists. Earlier, Kathryn Ptacek wrote a novel about the major Romantic poets being victimized by a different kind of vampire, the sexually predatory lamia. Thinking of these works and many other cases where writers create excellent stories with historical figures as protagonists, I'm reminded of a guest-of-honor luncheon speech I heard a couple of years ago at a conference. The author giving the talk voiced his aversion to any fiction using a real person, no matter how long dead, as a major character. If I understood him correctly, he viewed this practice as a form of exploitation.

This author would definitely object to recent horror novels starring Abraham Lincoln and Queen Elizabeth (Tudor) as vampire slayers. (To my surprise, I found both of those books fairly convincing and respectful of their historical models.) But taking the principle to the rigorous lengths his lunch speech implied, he would also disapprove of all fictionalized biographies, e.g., Barbara Hambly's sympathetic treatment of Mary Todd Lincoln in the novel THE EMANCIPATOR'S WIFE, or any speculative retelling of historical events from the viewpoints of the main participants, such as Sharyn McCrumb's THE BALLAD OF TOM DOOLEY, forthcoming in a few days. In my opinion, the universe of fiction would be poorer without this kind of book. What about THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY and other biographical novels by Irving Stone? Has Michelangelo been dead long enough to be exempt from the prohibition? Taken to the ultimate extreme, the principle would rule out fiction on the lives of ancient figures such as Saint Paul or Julius Caesar. It would even apply to Shakespeare's history plays, which I strongly doubt the speaker had in mind.

The issue becomes more problematic when considering fiction about people who've died within living memory. Novels with H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian), C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien as heroes in completely invented storylines have been published in recent years. Needless to say, some critics have objected that these fictionalizations over-simplify or even caricature their subjects. Elvis Presley transformed into a vampire appears, though not as a major character and not explicitly named, in the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris. I've read a horror story with Elvis, near the end of his life, as the protagonist. Stephen King's forthcoming novel about the Kennedy assassination will include Lee Harvey Oswald, inevitably, as a central character.

Is any dead celebrity or historical figure fair game for fictionalization? Or do creative ethics require a writer to abstain from using a real-world person as a character (at least, onstage rather than as part of the historical background) until everyone who could remember him or her personally has died?

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

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