One of the hottest trends in historical fiction right now is biographical fiction, particularly of unsung females in history. Readers, if Goodreads and Amazon are to believed, love them. Me? I’m on the fence. There have been a few books that have blown me away (looking at you Island Queen), but for the most part, the books have left me cold. Which is a shame, because women certainly deserve to be in the historical spotlight.
I sat down this week to try and decipher what makes a piece biographical fiction work – or not work – for me. Here are three of the biggest issues that I discovered:
- Lack of sustained tension. One of the challenges of writing about actual people and events is that the conclusion is pre-ordained. We know Grace Kelly will die on a Monaco hillside, or that Prince Phillip will marry Elizabeth II or that Dr. Zhivago will see print. It is up to the author to somehow find a source of tension or conflict strong enough to sustain 300 pages. Sometime an author will select a moment in time that, while fascinating, lacks heft. As a result, they are forced to manufacture conflict, or stretch it out longer than necessary in order to fill the page. This results in a repetitiveness with the protagonist uttering the same worry over and over.
- Rewriting history to accommodate a plot. This isn’t about tweaking a date to fit a storyline. I mean rewriting history. Recently two such books crossed my radar. One placed their character at a major historical event that they never witnessed. The other completely erased a real person and replaced them with a fictionalized version. If you have to tweak a person’s history that much, why not use a fictional character instead?
- Letting the timeline drive the story. Of all the problems I’ve had with books, this is the most common. The purpose of biographical fiction is to breathe life into people from the past. To humanize them so that they become more than a name. To often, I’ve read stories that moved from milestone to milestone without letting the character ‘live’ the moment. The character feels flat. To me, the best historical fiction is character-driven. By definition, all biographical fiction should be character-driven. Events don’t happen to the character; the character’s actions drive the events. Show me what led them to their decisions. Show me the repercussions. Show me their flaws and mistakes.
In other words, make them human.
So, when does biographical fiction work for me? Well, that answer is simple. Give me a book with three-dimensional characters whose stories are interesting enough to make me care what happens to them. If you can do this using real-life people, then go for it. Otherwise, there’s nothing wrong with letting people inspire the creation of your own.