anyone else working on a novel based on real people and events?

(10 Posts)
Teapigging Wed 18-Sep-13 12:47:39

Prompted by Fackinell's thread on being stuck and not liking her main character, and my response to her.

I am working on a novel based on real people and events, and sticking as close as possible to the facts of their lives (though interpretations of their actions are my own). There are detailed biographies of several of my main characters, which is great in some ways, but problematic in others, and it has made me think about the differences between fiction and biography, and the messiness of real life vs the 'smoothness' of even the most realistic of fiction.

Things happen in real life that we would never invent for a novel, like an unlikely coincidence which would be dismissed as too far-fetched, or the heroine's close friend having the same name as the heroine, which any editor would tell you confused the reader (both these things figure in my main character's life). But also much bigger things, like people acting out of character.

I was saying this on Fackinell's thread, but my main character is strong, cold, dedicated to her work, rather reclusive, unconventional, yet when she falls in love (disappointingly) with a famous womaniser, she turns into a hysterical, mooning stalker who bombards the object of her affections with self-abasing letters several times a day and completely gives up the work she has sacrificed everything for.

This is really, really causing me problems, partly because I suspect I am annoyed and disappointed with her for letting the side down, but mostly because it's so out of character. Yet it really happened, and unless I'm going to discard the facts of her life, I need to write it! A novelist friend says I should be much looser with the 'facts', but I'm not comfortable with that. It seems an insult to write about real people (long dead, I should say!) but stick in your own inventions when their reality doesn't suit you...

Is anyone else in a similar situation?

GrendelsMum Wed 18-Sep-13 13:55:41

It's a really intriguing problem.

I suppose that you have to set up for it earlier, so that her later behaviour is not out of character, but becomes understandable but still disappointing. Tunip's wrestling with the same problem, in some ways - a character who suddenly behaves very differently, as a result of a traumatic experience

Teapigging Wed 18-Sep-13 14:11:51

I love your username. It makes me remember playing noughts and crosses in lectures on Beowulf...

Yes, you're right that I need to foreshadow it, I think, but it's quite difficult to do, given that there seems no hint of that obsessive, self-abasing tendency anywhere in her character before or after this relationship. And no trauma I can use to 'explain' it.

There are things I can omit, because I have chosen to end the novel before they happen - like a religious conversion I hint at only by having her look through a church door in one of the last scenes - but not this! I will look at Tunip's posts.

WaspInTheHouse Wed 18-Sep-13 14:25:27

In just those couple of paragraphs you have something which in part explains the behaviour. If she is so dedicated to her work she's obsessive, then maybe she turns that character trait on a person. If she's always been able to succeed at things through hard work then this is her failure and she needs to reclaim it? If it's from the past there was much more pressure on women to partner up and she will always have felt this pressure.

Who knows what always lurked beneath and what he got out of her. If they were together awhile then the "cold" she had thawed, she left herself open and once being open she felt like she couldn't stop being open. Like being in therapy and once the floodgates open you just spew everything out!

There doesn't even need to be a big trauma, just a constant drip of something which has an effect on her, the example of relationships around her or in society.

Teapigging Wed 18-Sep-13 14:36:27

Thanks, Wasp. You know, you have made me think this is as much about my own prejudices as about this character - as a 21st c feminist, I'm happy with a woman born in the late 19thc who is obsessive about work, but less than thrilled to see her morphing into someone who is obsessive about a man! Especially when she is just one in a long line of conquests... Sigh.

I must turn it around and look at it in other ways, and I have to stop judging her for her actions or the novel is doomed!

WaspInTheHouse Wed 18-Sep-13 16:49:11

I ended up thinking about this on the school run walk and I was going to come back and say what you said about your own perceptions as to the characters strengths and weaknesses, not just a difference in era but how we feel about ourselves.

My novel is set in the 1950's, alternate 1950's, but still mostly the same sensibilities as in real life and it's quite difficult, I don't want her to have some traits she definitely would have given her background!

But yes, it's not good to want to like your own main character because then you're not as free to have them behave as they might/should etc.

TunipTheUnconquerable Wed 18-Sep-13 22:25:54

Why do you want to tell this story?

Because I must say, I absolutely LOVE the sound of the tension between this cold, driven career woman and the mooning stalker. To me, this sounds like potentially a terrifically interesting novel, whereas tbh a heroic narrative of some amazing woman pioneer would be a bit yawnsville.

See, I know you perceive this as a problem, but I'm not entirely convinced it is. To me, one purpose of historical novels about real people can be to try to join up the dots of what is known about historical figures and kind of hypothesise what might have been going on to account for such discrepancies. It would obviously be a huge challenge, to try and figure out what is going on and why she did such apparently contradictory things, but won't it be a fascinating journey? And you would do this by thinking harder about her attributes and whether they can result in different effects in different situations (Wasp talks a lot of sense) and about the historical context and what it all looked like from her POV as a woman of her time.

I don't honestly think you should worry about whether you're being judgy. From the fact that you have posted this at all, I think you have the intellectual honesty and self-awareness to rise above your prejudices about what you would like her to have been. Just try to get to know her as well as you can and let her voice (though obviously it's your recreation of her voice, but we can pretend) speak for itself.

Teapigging Wed 18-Sep-13 22:45:22

Oh, thanks Tunip. That's very generous, and you talk a lot of excellent sense.

I've probably given a false impression of the character's drivenness. She is an artist, rather than a career woman as such - and isn't focused on success or recognition, only has her first solo exhibition at 50, long after the end of my timeline, and her success was mostly posthumous, but simply focused on doing good work. She stops painting almost entirely during this obsessive relationship, despite the fact that her lover tries to get her to return to it. That's what makes me so uneasy....

There are several biographies of her, but none convince me entirely.

I won't bother you by asking what your novel is about, but presumably you talk about it on various threads...?

Teapigging Wed 18-Sep-13 22:48:55

Oh, and there's the other problem of trying to convey what was in the relationship for her, when she knew all along she was only one of many women, and that his sexual interest n her waned quite quickly...

Challenges, challenges...

TunipTheUnconquerable Wed 18-Sep-13 23:04:31

I should think the problem is trying to understand rather than trying to convey?

I bang on about my novel at tedious length in the 2013 revising and editing thread. It's not (for the most part) about real people, though my next one will be.

I need to go to bed right now - will try to say more tomorrow!

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