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I am about half-way into writing a manuscript of historical fiction depicting mostly fictional European characters in the period between the First and Second World Wars. For purposes of the storyline I would like to create an imaginary third sister to Czar Nicholas II of Russia — someone who generally opposed the monarchy and specifically her brother's brutal regime, and decided to marry a commoner and leave the country.

We're all familiar with "fictionalizing" dialogue and situations within the lives of actual, historical figures. But I'm uncertain if what I'm describing is also commonplace. In other words, I wonder if it's acceptable or prudent to "invent" a sibling in this manner.

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    It seems to me that it would undermine your credibility as an author. In my opinion, anything that can be checked through research shouldn't be misrepresented in historical fiction. Anything that can not reasonably be verified is a grey area, giving you more license. Can you clarify whether you hope to publish this? Have you considered other options, like a friend or acquaintance, instead of a sibling, making this choice? – DPT Mar 28 '18 at 22:10
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    That kind of diversion from historical accuracy moves the story from the realms of historical fiction to that of alternative history. – Thomo Mar 28 '18 at 22:31
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    Sibling might be too close to home, but perhaps invent a close cousin that is like a sister? Or co-opt an actual cousin. There are plenty of stories that invent love interests for historical characters that didn't exist, so I wouldn't stay it's never been done with a sibling. You can play fast and loose with history in fiction. Maybe even have an actual sister divorce or lose her husband earlier and marry a commoner? I think one of his sisters did leave for Canada. – S. N. Walker Mar 29 '18 at 7:15
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    Illegitimate half-sister? It would be really convenient to have a legit reason she is not mentioned. – Ville Niemi Mar 29 '18 at 8:09
  • @VilleNieme - Just to clarify: I assume by "not mentioned" you mean not mentioned in the history books? – Suttroper Mar 29 '18 at 15:43
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Personally, I wouldn’t have a problem with your proposal.

Your description is of a fictional work, set in a real, historical setting: not a biography of a historical figure. And it seems you have a sound reason to include her: she could function as an opponent to the royal family’s views and morals – a “voice of the common people” in the palace.

However, I would advise you to include a foreword or afterword, which is not part of the story, telling the reading that the character did not exist, and why you included her.

I don’t read much historical fiction, so I can’t recall a book where this has been done. However, the HBO/BBC TV series Rome – a very detailed and heavily researched historical drama – did change family trees of known historical figures in order to tell a fictional story.

Also, if anyone says doing this harms your credibility as a fiction writer, ask them what they think of William Shakespeare. Falstaff – one of Shakespeare’s most popular characters, who appeared in 5 plays – first appeared in Henry IV Part I and was the best friend of the young King Henry IV.

Henry IV was a real person. Falstaff was not.

  • +1 for the foreword. As a reader of historical fiction, I have much more respect for the authors that either weave their fictional events around historical facts or add a foreword referring where they steered away from historical facts. I advise every author of historical fiction to respect the history buffs who read the genre, because it might make the difference between buying a second book by the author. As for Shakespeare... historical fiction from the early 20th century backwards isn't expected to be accurate. – Sara Costa Mar 31 '18 at 14:17
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Can you? Yes. There is nothing wrong with it, either legally or ethically. What you're doing would come under "artistic license". In fact, Alexandre Dumas' "The Man in the Iron Mask", for instance, relies on similar artistic license: as far as we know, Louis XIV had no twin brother. So you'd be in good company.

Should you? That's rather opinion-based. Here's something for you to consider, however: unlike Dumas' original readers, your readers would have access to Wikipedia. They'd immediately know there was no such sister. For some, that might significantly impede their suspension of disbelief. Then again, the fact that Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna had been very definitely murdered together with the rest of her family, did not prevent Disney (or was it some other studio?) making an animated movie about how she actually survived.

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    +1, though I disagree people would immediately know there was no such sister. In my experience, some readers might check Wikipedia after reading the book, but most would not. Furthermore, I work with teenagers and they tend to take historical fiction as true history without ever bothering to check any facts. I had this one kid who read an adventure book with Leonardo da Vinci and was very passionate about its 'facts'. He even went to the point of telling me to look it up online when I didn't acknowledge I was wrong. – Sara Costa Mar 29 '18 at 7:46
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    @SaraCosta Yes. I think I'm a pretty well-educated person, and I don't know off the top of my head whether Tsar Nicholas had brothers and sisters or what any of them may have done. And not just because he's from another country. I don't know if George Washington or Abe Lincoln had brothers and sisters. Yes, in this Internet age, it's easier to look up and find out than it would have been 50 years ago. But odds are few will. Maybe if someone found the character particularly interesting, they'd say, "Hey, I'd like to learn more about this sister" ... and then find out she's total fiction. – Jay Mar 30 '18 at 19:31
  • The story of Anastasia inspired not just the 1997 Disney movie, but also the 1956 movie with Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brenner, a 1986 TV movie, and apparently there's another Anastasia movie in the works right now with Emily Carey and Brandon Routh. The story is just too entertaining to be ruined by mere facts. – Jay Mar 30 '18 at 19:39
  • FWIW the animated Anastasia was 20th century FOX (though in a very Disney style). We could have immediately looked that up as well and mostly didn't bother ;) – mkbk Apr 3 '18 at 1:14
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Historical fiction often takes great liberties with the actual history. The trick, I think, is to make your story so that nothing in it is easily proven wrong by reading a conventional history book. That is, you can add all sorts of things to what's in the history books, but you should avoid contradicting the history books.

Basically, that means either, (a) the person or event that you invent is minor enough that no one would be surprised that it didn't make it into the history books; or (b) it's something that would have been private or even secret; or (c) you give some explanation for why the history books got it wrong.

For example: (a) You say that one day Tsar Nicholas was touring the city and met a peasant girl and they had this interesting conversation. Who would know that that didn't really happen? History doesn't record every step the tsar ever took or every person he ever spoke to.

(b) You relate a private conversation between the tsar and tsarina about their personal lives. If no one else was there, who would know what was said?

(c) You say that Princess Anastasia really survived the massacre of her family, but no one knew because she had amnesia and didn't know herself, and friends and relatives tried to keep it all secret so that the communists wouldn't hunt her down and kill her.

In your case: Another sister is surely too big for the history books to just miss, and would likely have been widely known. So you have to come up with some reason why the sister is not in the history books. One possibility that occurs to me is to say that the family found the behavior you describe so scandalous that they had her cut out of all official histories, threatened newspaper publishers with dire consequences if they ever mentioned her name, etc, and so wiped all knowledge of her out of existence. When the communists took over, they didn't want to talk about the sister either because an anti-monarchist but not pro-communist member of the royal family might become a rallying point for anti-communists, someone who could be held up as the "rightful queen", so they were happy to go along with expunging her.

If that particular ideas doesn't work in your story, fine, come up with something else that DOES fit.

Lots of historical fiction has very fanciful scenarios to explain away what's in the history books in favor of their more entertaining tale.

Total side thought: I'm sure every historical fiction novel has scenes that are provably false because they get details wrong that only the most dedicated history buffs would be likely to know. Like, "Hey, this story says that Tsar Nicholas talked to Rasputin on August 12??? But everybody knows that Rasputin was in St Petersburg that day while the tsar was in Sevastopol ..." I wonder if this ruins the story for the history buff.

  • "I wonder if this ruins the story for the history buff." As a medieval history buff, the mistakes that really rub me the wrong way is things like talking about potatoes before America was discovered (this is not a minor detail in my book) or changing the year a battle happened to fit a fictional aspect of the plot (lazy writing: have your fictional plot points work around the historical ones rather than distort historical facts because you won't bother to be creative enough). – Sara Costa Mar 31 '18 at 14:00
  • As for your example, for as long as one of the characters wasn't in an important cerimony, I count it as a minor detail. If I happen to know the facts, it'll mean the author wasn't as thorough with research as they should, but I'd let it slide if most everything else is historically accurately. – Sara Costa Mar 31 '18 at 14:05
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I would advise against it. In a historical novel, you do not want to "tamper" with history. That is, you do not want to create a character close enough to a historical figure to be able to re-write history. People who are familiar with the actual history of the historical figure might resent this. The exception to this rule might be if a historical figure would be the main character.

There is a saying for a historical novel, "Your fiction's main characters ought to be minor characters in history, and your (main) historical characters should be minor characters in your fiction." You can make your hero say, a bodyguard to George Washington. "Everyone" knows that such figures have bodyguards and practically no one cares who they are. You can even allow your bodyguard hero to overhear Washington's battle plans and react accordingly. But your character should not be close enough to Washington to "talk back," or "consult" with him on battle plans, thereby affecting the course of history. Unless, of course s/he did so in real life.

  • You make a strong and possibly convincing case for not tampering with history, and I would normally agree. But other responses (above) are also compelling. I'm still undecided... but I admit my judgment may be affected by having already invested (wasted?) a lot of writing time on this character. – Suttroper Mar 29 '18 at 15:51
  • +1 for 'not tampering with history', but not so much for avoiding major historical characters as main fictional characters. For as long as the research is thorough and the author is both respectful and humble while writing the historical characters, it shouldn't stop anyone. – Sara Costa Mar 31 '18 at 14:08

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