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Real Historical Figures in a Fantasy World

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Greybeard, Jun 4, 2011.

  1. Greybeard

    Greybeard Minstrel

    Have you tried incorporating actual historical figures into your fantasy world? I believe that this can add rich possibilities if handled with finesse.

    What are some of the potential pitfalls to avoid when trying this? And what are the rewards?
  2. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

    I know of some writers who have had different modicums of success with this. Naomi Novik's series deals with the Napoleonic Wars but with dragons and stuff. I believe the book Leviathan also deals with an alternate reality of Earth, with mechs and dragons and such fighting in Europe. Of course Harry Turtledove does plenty of this as well.

    I personally enjoy putting historical figures in my stories sometimes. I had George Washington fighting minotaurs in one story, Robert Frost killing demons in another. I don't know if I could write a whole book like that though. The "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" sort of concept is clever, but the joke wears thin I think after a bit. I heard "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" is a bit better. I actually saw a Japanese version of that over here recently. Manga Abraham Lincoln looks pretty tough!

    Anyway, I think the key is to try not to take the historical figure so seriously. Or if you are going to take them seriously, do research on them to find out what they are really like.

    I think rewards could be great if you try to get that niche market that likes familiar characters in their fantasy. If I saw a book that had Hitler leading an army of orcs and albino Death Merchants into England to fight Winston Churchill and his neo-paladin elf Warscreamers (made that up) then I would probably check that out.
  3. Amanita

    Amanita Maester

    Ah, you mean real historical figures with their real names turning up in a fantasy world?
    I don't like that too much, it feels a bit like "real person-fanfiction" even though the real people are dead.
    Something I do is getting inspired by historical figures and having people in my fantasy world, that are a bit like them. (But most of them aren't too well-known anyway.)
  4. J. Rosemary Moss

    J. Rosemary Moss Scribe

    That's what I was wondering. I think there would be any number of pitfalls in transferring an historical figure to a fantasy world. However, historical fiction mixed with fantasy can be marvelous! My favorite example is Susana Clark's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell--she weaves Byron, Wellington and others into the story seamlessly.
  5. myrddin173

    myrddin173 Maester

    One example of this which I really enjoy is Michael Scott's The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, some of the historical figures that have shown up include Niccolo Machiavelli, Dr. John Dee (Elizabeth I court magician), William Shakespeare, Joan of Arc, Billy the Kid, and of course Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel. He also includes a large number of mythological figures but I will not list them since that isn't the point of this thread.
  6. Helbrecht

    Helbrecht Minstrel

    I think it's a delightful thing to take real, established personalities from our world and place them into fantastical situations, just to see how they'd react. I'm currently working with a setting of mine which is basically an AU version of Victorian Britain in which magic and supernatural creatures have an established presence. My intense fascination with several figures of the era has naturally led me to include a couple of them in my story - I've been told that my idea is a little like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, mentioned above, but I'm still in the process of reading that.

    Strangely, though, in selecting which historical characters to include in my story, I seem to be tipped towards figures of art and culture, rather than people like politicians, scientists and soldiers who had a lasting influence on history. Of note, I'm incorporating Lord Byron, John Polidori and Mary Shelley (or, well, immortal versions thereof) into my plot, and have been getting down and dirty in my biographical research for the three of them and a few others.
  7. BeigePalladin

    BeigePalladin Sage

    question, do you plan to manipulate what they write into this mystical critters theme? because if so, it'd be rather funny if Shelly (and please say this is the right one, as there's too many in our history), rather than writing Frankenstien in one night, managed to build one...
  8. Helbrecht

    Helbrecht Minstrel

    Yeah, she's the right one. Author of Frankenstein and The Last Man. And that's actually not far from the truth! :)
    One of the main "alternate" and "fantastical" things about my pseudo-historical setting is that the upper classes of Britain, centuries before the story's set, were quietly usurped by a form of supernatural being deriving power from faeries. For all intents and purposes, they're a bit like vampires, although they have a lifespan limited by their grip on reality. When they "die", the aspect of a faerie in them rises up to collect the debt, so to speak, and they're vanished off to their domain and made their temporary playthings before being sent back to Earth however long after. This time-gap between their "deaths" and subsequent reappearances is how I'm having historical figures from the Regency active in Victorian London.

    Faerie influence and "art" means they're physically and psychologically altered in bizarre ways which ironically highlight how they've spent their life. A painter might be turned into a canvas man of ever-changing colours and patterns, for a physical example, and a writer might be cursed to forever speak and think in iambic pentameter and perceive reality in the patterns of literary analysis, for a psychological one. Usually, they come out of this with a specific set of magical abilities related to that. For example, Polidori, a physician first and an author second, gets the powers of a healer, his mouth and nose replaced with a surgical mask, and a ruthlessly clinical, inhuman approach to the practice of healing itself.

    I was thinking a writer like Shelley could herself develop a personality resembling a conglomerate of a few of her famous characters, and the skills to craft undead homunculi boot. I was going to include a zombie-like character from a previous work in this, and a potential origin story for him in this setting could be that.
  9. Forsta-Phoenix

    Forsta-Phoenix Dreamer

    As a firm believer in chaos theory I feel an instant pang of nausea everytime I see something like "Oh this event/aspect of life is radically different from our history, but in 1776 the USA is still born and in 1945 the Axis still loses world war two!" it just bugs me on a very deep level HOWEVER as a lover of fiction it is always fun to read something where the supernatural is somehow involved in our own world. Although if it is more along the lines of shoehorning a famous historical persona into a completly fantastical situation (Queen Victoria as part of the fellowship of the ring anyone?) without a pretty good explanation is a major turn off in my eyes unless done extremely well or very tongue in cheek.

    Although if anyone is familiar with the concept of an ISOT, Island in the Sea of Time, where something be it a portion of land, island or even a country! from one timeline/world/universe is teleported to another time and place. Like in Stirling's Nantucket series or Flint's 1632, this is a good way to have characters interact with people from history although most authors do this between points in our history instead of magical/fantastical worlds. But who is to say what can and can't happen!
  10. SeverinR

    SeverinR Vala

    Paul Revere rides shouting:
    "The orcs are coming! the orcs are coming! One is by land, two is by sea, three is by air!"
  11. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    WOW I had never considered nor heard of such a thing as using real historical people in fantasy. I don't think it's for me to write, but I would definitely read it, especially a short story. It sounds like loads of fun.
  12. fcbkid15

    fcbkid15 Scribe

    That actually sounds kind of cool. There have been some books like that, but not many. Personally I think it'd be cool to have Hannibal and his men crossing the alps, but encountering some kind of dragon or monster thing. Theres' tons of possibilities. It'd be cool to have like a book of short stories, of famous events in history, like Washington crossing the delaware, or Columbus sailing to America, except with fantasy mixed in. That'd be pretty cool.
  13. Kaellpae

    Kaellpae Inkling

    Sort of like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies but with actual events?
  14. fcbkid15

    fcbkid15 Scribe

    yeah, or abraham lincoln: vampire hunter. It'd be like when washington crosses the delware, they encounter a sea monster or something. The stories would just be short stories, 20 something pages. I might actually work on something like this now, it sounds pretty cool.
  15. razzazzika

    razzazzika Scribe

    I personally never tried doing it, and yes, There is such a thing as real people fan fiction, but if a story involving an actual historical person is done RIGHT it can be good. I heard the two examples cited already that I was going to cite (Napoleon + Dragons, Lincoln + vampires). Another honorable mention is the Sookie Stackhouse novels(to which the show Tru Blood is based on), Elvis was turned into a vampire, but wasn't quite turned right and lost most of his memories. So now he's used as sort of a dimwit bodyguard. They call him Bubba.
  16. CicadaGrrl

    CicadaGrrl Troubadour

    I think it is possible, but it always just annoys me. Characters are my main focus in reading and writing. You aren't ever going to exactly copy who the person was. Even then, what's the point? It's like remaking psycho. Why? Come up with something sparkling and interesting and all you.
  17. Misusscarlet

    Misusscarlet Minstrel

    I actually have a real-life character in my story. Cordell Hull is actually my great great great uncle. I am very proud to be related to him since he won the Nobel Peace price in 1945, served under Roosevelt and set-up the United Nations just before he died. Of course in my story he is a being from a different dimension that escaped a war that would have caused his people to become extinct and ended up on earth to become to ancestor of The Chosen Ancient.
  18. Bass_Thunder37

    Bass_Thunder37 Scribe

    Well, talking about this concept of famous people fan-fiction, you have to recognize the greatest self-insertion fan-fic ever, Inferno, by Dante.
    And as a religious history major, I intend on eventually writing a story about Emperor Leo III-V, Constantine V, Pope Gregory III, John of Damascus, a story of the two Byzantine iconoclasms, depicting the three Leos attempting to, you know, nobody knows what I'm talking about, I'm just gonna go play Splinter Cell.

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