Today, I explain what I expect to see from the use of historical figures in historical fiction.
This is the Cronin Theory of Pop Culture, a collection of stuff I’ve noticed over the years that I think hold pretty true.
Obviously, I’m not going to sit here and tell you not to use historical figures in historical fiction, as of COURSE you’re going to use historical figure in historical fiction (as I say “of course,” obviously that isn’t a requirement, as there ARE historical fiction that have avoided using real historical figures, but for the most part, historical fiction works in historical figures into the narrative). However, I think that there should be a general rule when using historical figures, which is that they should be generally as interesting as they are/were in real life.
For instance, I have previously explained my disappointment with how Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton was portrayed, as the show made her LESS feminist than she was in real life (and, in the process, more interested in Alexander Hamilton than she was in real life).
Similarly, there was enough of an issue with how she was treated in The Queen’s Gambit that Nona Gaprindashvili literally SUED the show for defamation, as the show, in a quest to make Elizabeth Harmon seem more special, specifically tried to downplay Gaprindashvili’s accomplishments (claiming that she she never played competitive chess against men to differentiate her from the fictional Harmon, when she had). That’s really not cool. If you’re working in historical fiction, you shouldn’t downplay real life people’s achievements to build up your fictional character.
Basically, let historical figures be as interesting as they were in real life and THEN work them into your narrative. You don’t have to spotlight them or anything, but don’t diminish them for the sake of your story. In the case of Gaprindashvili, it could have easily been something as simple as what the literal line in the original book, Queen’s Gambit, said, “There was Nona Gaprindashvili, not up to the level of this tournament, but a player who had met all these Russian Grandmasters many times before” and then you don’t have to get into it any further. Gaprindashvili had a great line in the New York Times where she sort of joked, “They were trying to do this fictional character who was blazing the trail for other women, when in reality I had already blazed the trail and inspired generations That’s the irony.”
So yeah, you certainly don’t need to dwell on historical figures that you don’t want to use, but just play fair, let the historical figure be as interesting as they were in real life and don’t make up stuff to diminish them.