A very common trope in historical fiction is to have real people feature as characters in your fictional works, either as cameos, side characters or protagonists. The accuracy of the depictions in these works is on a wide spectrum of historical accuracy. On one side you have those who remain incredibly faithful to the accounts of what these people were like, while other authors delve fully into the realm of fictionalization.
While this is not necessarily a bad thing, there can often be morally dubious consequences associated with turning real people into fictional characters. Depending on how those characters are portrayed, you run the risk of overplaying or underplaying the serious consequences that their actions may have had. One prevalent and controversial example is Hamilton – which in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, is a musical reimagining the founding fathers. Though it has gained popularity and the message is somewhat positive (though it has undertones of liberal American optimism that have aged poorly), it almost fully glosses over the horrific personal lives of the founding fathers, and the way that they contributed to racism and sexism in the United States. It creates a false view of American history that can be harmful.
Another example would be the series Our Flag Means Death. I adore the show, for a variety of reasons which I will be delving into next week. Still, I do feel that one has to tread carefully with the historical representation in this show. Though the show is anachronistic and often inaccurate on purpose, the main characters are based on real people, though it is really in name alone. However, the difference in characterization can lead to misconceptions about the real people that the characters are based on. There is nothing wrong with taking inspiration from these real people, and obviously, liberties have been taken with their traits and personalities (for example, the real Izzy Hands would have only been 16 or 17 when the events of the show were taking place), but the real people they were based on were far less sympathetic than they appeared in the show.
Of course, the characters in Our Flag Means Death are incredibly divorced from their real-life counterparts. The important part is that they must be treated as such, both by the writers, and the fandom. One of the problems with turning real people into fictional characters is that fictional characters tend to fit into tropes and archetypes. This is not an issue in and of itself, as tropes are used as building blocks to tell a story.
However, real people don’t act like characters in a story. Many interpretations of historical figures paint them in one light, often overwhelmingly positive or negative, which can lead to those impressions transferring over to real people. History, despite having a “story” in its name, is impossible to categorize in the same way we categorize narrative structures. Real people are messier with more rocky morality, while characters tend to fit into boxes. The main issue is that seeing history as a linear narrative with protagonists and antagonists does a real disservice to the field of history, so it is important to recognize that characters based on historical figures are fictional and often oversimplified for the sake of the plot.
For more explanation on the issue of idolizing historical figures, you can check out Kaz Rowe’s video on the topic. They are an excellent queer historian who is very dedicated to extensive research on various LGBTQ historical figures. Here’s the link: Why Do We Idolize LGBTQ Historical Figures?
is a young writer from Ottawa, Canada. When he isn’t in school, he enjoys reading, writing, crochet, and playing with his two cats. Their favorite genres are horror and fantasy, and they enjoy all things strange. You can find him on Instagram at @nate_fahmi
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