Protagonists of Historical Fiction: famous or less-famous

It is tempting to write a historical fiction from the point of view from the famous figures of the era. Many fictions wrote Napoleon, Elizabeth I, or Alexander the Great as the protagonists with their own voices. However, this poses danger of simplifying/glorifying/vilifying the figures and bend the historical details. For example, the author writing Napoleon as the heroic figure might purposefully ignore his atrocities in Haiti or other blunders, or even try to glorify his vices.

Some authors find it restricting to write on well-known figure so they create new characters or take on lesser known characters. Hitoshi Iwaaki, the manga artist who created The Parasite, had Eumenes, Alexander the Great’s secretary, as the main character of his historical comics "Historie". This provides more liberty for the author but may not attract readers’ attention or place himself in dangerous paradox by making supposedly "obscure" figures too good – if such a significant person had lived, why did historians fail to recognize them?

But which type of protagonist can provide more entertainment? What would be the good model to follow?

Which type of protagonist can provide more entertainment: famous, infamous, or non-famous? Which would be the best model to follow?

  • It is the author's responsibility to be very diligent about their research and fact checking in either case. Period. At that point, I think it mainly depends on what point the author is trying to get across. Maybe they want to justify or show a different side of a famous person in which case it may make more sense to use the famous person. But if they want a little bit more freedom, then yes it'd make more sense to use someone less famous. And if the writer isn't really concerned with history as much as the characters, maybe they don't really care about the facts and therefore need to toe a line between being believable and interesting. – Tatijana 9 years ago
  • This is interesting! Comparing the portrayal of famous historical figures could be helpful for this topic; you could look at how widely they vary. I imagine that major historical figures may attract a wider audience, but I think that the fact that it's "fiction" would have to be taken into account. I imagine that each interpretation on the facts is entirely different from another. The interesting thing about an original character would be that we don't know the outcome; there is a sense of mystery as a reader as to the character's fate, whereas we go in knowing the fate of a historical figure. In that sense, I think you could make an argument for both types of historical novel being the best model. – laurakej 9 years ago

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