I’ve been preoccupied with the issue of historical versus fictional characters lately (as you well know!) and a recent reading experience confirms my fears. I’ve begun reading a historical novel set at the same time period as the new book I’m working and featuring a cast of characters pulled directly from history. I’m only two chapters in, but the book’s depiction of François I is so caricatured and sensational, such an exaggeration of the historical accounts, I’m ready to throw the book across the room!
François was a notorious womanizer; in addition to his two consecutive royal mistresses, Françoise de Foix, the Duchesse de Châteaubriant, and Anne de Pisseleu, Madame d’Etampes, he surrounded himself with a “petite bande” of beautiful noblewomen whom he showered with gifts of fine clothing, jewels and other marks of royal affection. Yes, he probably had amorous liaisons with some of these women, and yes, he most likely frequented the “filles de joye” on the royal payroll as well, but despite his appetites he was far from the ribald lecher the novel portrays him to be. He strove to refashion the French court according to Italian examples, where the art of conversation and rules of courtoisie ruled supreme. A well-educated amateur of poetry and the plastic arts, he surrounded himself with beautiful women and beautiful things, establishing the French court for a time as the apex of culture and refinement among the courts of Europe.
I was concerned when I began reading that this novel would cover too much of the same ground to make mine worthwhile. Not to worry; my François will be quite a different fellow. There are only so many sources on the Renaissance king that one can consult; how can two authors read the same things and create such different characters? Yet I’m sure we would both be surprised if we could discover where the real François fit into the spectrum of our creations!
A writer’s fictionalization of a real character always risks conflicting with the reader’s pre-formed image of the historical person. In order not to alienate the reader, the author can’t deviate too far from the accepted norms established by historical accounts. The challenge is to alter the norms just enough to make the characters interesting, engaging and amenable to the plot.