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In a fiction novel with a strong historical foundation, can you replace a public figure with a fictional one? For instance, replacing the mayor of a city during a specific time period with a fictional character.

There is plenty written on how to incorporate real people into a fictional work but not on replacing a real person with a made up one.

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    Is this figure a major character or just a name? – Alexander Oct 12 '20 at 17:22
  • It is a major character who holds political office. So it would be easy to look it up if someone were inclined. – Sadie Oct 12 '20 at 21:24
  • Can you keep the name, and change the character behind it? – Alexander Oct 12 '20 at 23:41
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This is a fiction novel. Other than the restrictions you put upon yourself, there is no problem in changing some historical characters, dates, etc.

The limitation would probably be that you want to strictly follow historical events, or that you were afraid of an astute reader noticing that and thinking you were wrong / no longer enjoying the story (however, most readers will have no idea at all of the actual historical events around that).

Typically that could be explained as a slight deviation in your world vs ours. Mr Historical Character may have lost a tight the vote for the city council, leading to a different mayor. Or he could have lost a previous election inside his own party, being replaced by Mr. Fictional Character that nobody heard of in our world (but could perfectly have existed). That could even be mentioned inside the story where a character mentions that "Mr Historical would have been a better mayor in my opinion, it's a pity that shortly before the election he ended up in the hospital / escaped with his girlfriend / was mourning the loss of his father..."

It's also not unheard of to have an epilogue where the author acknowledges (excuses himself of) the licenses that were taken on writing the work: "I had to made J.Doe mayor of the city three years before he actually took office"

Although it may seem a big issue for you, these creative licenses aren't a big deal.

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  • Thank you for this! – Sadie Oct 12 '20 at 21:24
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That depends. Do you want to stay historically accurate? Then: No.

If you do want your novel to be entertaining over historically realistic, yes, absolutely, you can do that. Ken Follet, for example, does this a lot in his novel "The Pillars of the Earth". He even invents whole new places which didn't exist in real life. In his novel "The Physician", Noah Gordon also replaces and rewrites real people in the Arab world of the 11th century. In the end, you have to keep in mind that a historical novel can never be 100% accurate as there is limited information concerning the era. Taking a bit of creative freedom doesn't hurt much - if you're not marketing your story as accurate to all existing sources.

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Certainly. By definition, any work of fiction may have elements of truth but is not 100% true. If you write a historical novel but don't change anything about the real people and events, than you haven't written a "historical novel", you've written a history book.

Generally historical novels try to be accurate about the "big points" but change smaller details. Like, an historical novel set during the American Revolution would usually still have George Washington leading the Continental Army, but I don't any reader would question for a moment if the story included a totally fictional private in his army. Indeed, I think only a very few would question a fictional general.

Aside from the most famous people, most readers wouldn't know if a character was fictional or not. If you told me that the mayor of London in 1623 was named Herbert Fromme, I would have no idea if that was historically accurate or not. And I suspect that only a few students of history would even know.

Even big events can be changed if there's a reason for it in your story. Like, continuing with the American Revolution example, if you casually wrote in your story that the American Capitol was in Atlanta Georgia, many readers would likely say, Wait, that's not right, you've messed up the history. But if an important element of the plot in your story was how the capital is moved to Atlanta, why this was done and what the effects were, readers would likely say, "Hmm, how interesting. I wonder what really would have happened if the capital had been moved to Atlanta?"

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That kind of story is not uncommon.

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren is a novel about a fictional politician running for Governor in the state of Louisiana in the early 1930's. The central character is Willie Stark. Given the time and the place that the story takes place, you can look up the real characters and see that Willie Stark took the place of the real Huey P. Long.

Huey Long was a controversial figure in Louisiana politics. His actions influenced things there into the 1960's - despite his having been shot and killed (assasinated) in 1935.

The story of Willie Stark takes some of the events from Huey Long's life and uses them to provide a background for things that the author has to say about people and politics. Rather than try to put words into real peoples mouths, the author created his own cast of characters so that he could make them say and do what he wanted - and draw his own conclusions from them.

Note, though, that the author had more in mind than just telling the life story of Huey Long. All the King's Men isn't a biography of Huey Long. All the King's Men is a story about the motiviations politicians and people, and it used Huey Long's life as a scaffold.

I rather enjoy stories of that kind.

Real life writes interesting stories with twists that would be difficult for an author to come up with and make believable. Writing a story based on real events gives the story a reality that pure fiction has a hard time matching.

At the same time, changing the characters allows the author to make a more interesting story. If you write a biography, then you have to stick to the facts. If you write fiction based on reality, then you can make the hero more likeable (or less.) You can make the hero see and correct an error that the original made - or provide an alternative explanation for why things went wrong.

David Drake does that in many of his novels. The action (military science fiction) takes place in a far future with interstellar traffic and ray-guns - but the plots are all taken from real events in ancient history. People are people, regardless of how advanced the technology may be. His stories have a "ring of truth" that I miss in many stories written by people who just sit down and make stuff up.


All the King's Men popped into mind because I saw the Sean Penn movie from the novel a few weeks ago on TV.

It was rather surreal to watch Louisiana politics from the 1930's playing out in German. Though I am an American (from Louisiana,) I live in Germany. Imported TV shows and movies are almost all dubbed in German on TV here.

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