Friday, August 14, 2009

Ontological Transgressions in Fiction Writing

A.S. Byatt has a piece in The Guardian this week that expresses something I've felt uncomfortable about for some time: the use of real people as fictional characters in novels. I am not talking about a passing appearance of a Real Life Person, who may even play a part in the plot, but usually does or says things either attributed to them in life or which are very probable considering their real character. I mean the use of an actual person as a main character, one to whom an author ascribes actions and motivations, thoughts and beliefs, a distinct voice. As Byatt explains herself:

"I really don't like the idea of 'basing' a character on someone, and these days I don't like the idea of going into the mind of the real unknown dead," said Byatt in an interview with the organisers of the Booker prize. "It feels like the appropriation of others' lives and privacy. Making other people up, which is a kind of attack on them." Oscar Wilde appears in her own Booker-nominated novel, The Children's Book, she added, but "the novelist doesn't say what he thinks".

I understand the temptation; I've felt it myself. A real life person has a life and context all ready for you, using them is shorthand for a whole array of layered meaning. However, and as Byatt has suggested, using someone else's actuality for your own novel feels to me to be an ontological transgression. In moral philosophy, there is the question of whether you can do harm to the dead; this is one example where I feel that yes, you can. I agree with Byatt that it is a kind of attack on that person, in the sense that you are overwhelming their haecceity with your own.

It is impossible, finally, to know the mind of others, even someone as close as a spouse, a parent, a child. Trying to truly comprehend the mind of someone you only know by hearsay seems even more impossible. Creating such a person, an historically based individual whose mind was shaped by a different society, seems to me a novelist's duty: creating, rather than using a ready made Real Person and doing violence to their individual identity. When the character is someone lost far back in time, such as Cleopatra or various biblical figures, it doesn't bother me as much; they seem more like an archetypal figure than an individual at this point. Is this inconsistent? I'm not sure, but I do know that I generally dislike books that have recent historical figures as the main character, even when the story itself and the writing may be excellent.

Does this bother anyone else? Does anyone feel the opposite way, that real people make great fictional devices? Please weigh in, this topic is one that has fascinated me for years.


  1. This is a really great topic, and something I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, historical fiction about real people sometimes makes me more interested in that time period...more so than made-up characters. On the other, it must be done with care and respect.

    I was first bothered by this in the film An American Haunting based upon the true life story of the Bell Witch. No one knows for sure what happened but this film took a legend of sexual abuse to explain it. There is simply no factual evidence to suggest that happened, and it seems terrible to make a film using that explanation b/c it's most sensationalized. Especially when there are still living descendents and these are people who were just people...not even political figures.

  2. I'm generally comfortable with writers focusing on historical figures when they attempt to be true to what we know about them. Authors might fill in gaps, but I don't mind that, as long as the author stays true to what we do know about the person and the situation.

    I've also actively enjoyed more speculative uses of real people, as long as it's clear that's what the author is doing, and the author has them acting in ways that are true to what we know of them. Alternate histories can be great reading, and it's often fun to see real people appear on the sidelines of an obviously made-up story.

    What I don't like is when authors obviously imprint their modern attitudes onto real people or blatantly contradict known facts and try to pass it off as potentially true. I also don't like it when real people are used as a gimmick to sell a book. All of those instances really do seem like robbing people of their identities.

  3. It's really interesting that you bring up this question. It is something I've been grappling with greatly this week as I've begun reading Drood (told from Wilkie Collins' perspective about Charles Dickens). Maybe I was incredibly ignorant before reading this book about the life of Charles Dickens but it feels like such a disconnect between the author I've read and the author they're trying to get me to believe is Charles himself.

    I think discussing historical figures in non-fiction when basing it on facts, letters written by and to the author, etc., is a lot easier for me to handle than fictional depictions.

    Great topic for discussion!

  4. I agree with Teresa. I don't mind it as long as it doesn't contradict what we do know about the historical figures in question, or doesn't try to impose a mindset on them that they were very unlikely to have had at the time.

  5. Isn't this an interesting question! I have just read, in quick succession, novels featuring the novelist Josephine Tey, and Freud. I enjoyed the first, but only by detaching it from any real notion that it "said" anything about Tey. I don't feel comfortable with it, and I do think it is a violation, abeit usually a well-meaning one.

    I think when the author takes a distant historical character, you can read the intention as being to evoke the spirit of the time, rather than a real intention to recreate the person, but with a more recent person it feels to me like an imposition - for instance, an author might ascribe values to someone which they would have found quite unacceptable - but even in little everyday things it doesn't seem right. And sometimes it worries me that readers might think they know something about a person which is simply inaccurate - as you can imagine, I have a problem with historical drama, where you have a two- (or even three-) fold interpretation (author, actor and director) and with biography, as well, since that is also a fictional exercise.

    This may be largely an issue for people with backgrounds in philosophy, though? It's the fault of all those thought experiments...any moral philosophers out there who *don't* have a problem with it?

  6. My interpretation is that appropriating major historical figures as literary vehicles is fair game. Biography is fiction, after all, just one writer's version of reality. I get a kick from postmodern fiction when Freud or Marx or Monroe makes a cameo appearance. Why should biographers and historians have exclusive use of major historical figures?

    Where it gets more unsettling is when minor figures are appropriated. For example, I read Carlos Fuente's Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone. It is a fictional recreation of a two-month affair the narrator has with an actress. Fuentes claims it is based on an affair he had with Jean Sedberg, a minor actress who's life ended tragically. The more you investigate the blurring between fiction and autobiography and history, the more unsettling and interesting it gets.

    This is a great blog. I am pleased that I discovered it.

  7. I love this discussion. I remember having such feelings of unease when reading Wayne Johnston's "Colony of Unrequited Dreams." Unfortunately, it's such a damn fine novel, one of my favourites in fact. But he totally took over Joey Smallwood. Even as a politician I don't look upon favourably, there seemed to be something ethically wrong with Johnston's portrayal of Smallwood. In the book, as in real life, Smallwood was married to Clara. But Johnston presents him as being unfaithful (emotionally, anyway) with the fictional Sheilagh Feilding. I've heard that Smallwood's descendants were quite upset by it, and I can understand why.

  8. Everyone brings up some salient points here; it's nice to see others have considered this thorny issue.


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