Is it ethical to write stories using historical personages as viewpoint characters? This is a question that troubles me as a writer (and reader) of historical fiction. No matter how meticulously researched, historical fiction is just that—fiction, a construct of the author’s imagination. Given gaps in the historical record, the novelist fabricates a character’s thoughts, motivations, even aspects of his personality. This poses no problem when the author creates a character from nothing. But what if the author writes about a person who actually lived? Is it “right” to assign words and thoughts and feelings to a person, when there is often no way of knowing if the person actually thought or felt or would ever consider saying those things?
The label “historical novel” alerts the reader that a certain degree of authorial inventiveness colors the portrayal of the book’s characters. But does this absolve the novelist of the “sin” of accidental or intentional misrepresentation? Can an imaginative work, even if it casts the character in a positive light, be a disservice to the memory and repute of the person portrayed, in that it might not be true? Fictional portrayals do affect how readers think of history and remember its players. I could name plenty of historical figures I knew first through novels; only grudgingly did I change my image of them once I’d read more “objective” sources [and let’s not even touch the question of how factual sources are potentially (necessarily?) biased constructs themselves!]. And just think of the number of readers who accepted The DaVinci Code’s outrageous claims as true, even though the book was labeled a novel.
I suppose it comes down to this: three or four centuries from now, would I want a novelist, who could only know the most cursory things about me, portraying what I supposedly thought and felt and said, especially since I’d have no way of correcting mistakes or defending myself against inaccuracies? Is it right for me, then, to do this to someone else?
Unnecessary scruples, perhaps. But nevertheless a compelling reason to be as meticulous in my research and as responsible in my storytelling as possible.
What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this issue.