Fact into Fiction


Many writers use real people as characters – just think of Colm Tóibín’s The Master (Henry James), Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower (German poet and philosopher Novalis) or Mary Hamer’s Kipling & Trix (Rudyard Kipling and his sister). There are many other examples and this isn’t a new trend – after all, Shakespeare used ‘real’ characters too, from Cleopatra to English kings.

There are some people, including writers and historians, who dislike this fictionalising tendency, fearing that it muddies the water of historical scholarship. But no biography consists of nothing but objective facts. However much a biographer aims at for accuracy, the telling of a life is only a partial story, an edited version – otherwise it would be unthinkably long.

So how does a writer go about researching the life of a real person and then fictionalising them? I’m working on a novel about the Victorian art critic John Ruskin and I imagine my research process is fairly typical: I’m reading Ruskin’s own writings, including his published works, letters and diaries, as well as just about every biography I can get my hands on, and also a certain amount of academic material. I intend to visit his house in the Lake District to get a feel for his surroundings and see some of his belongings. But beyond that, my imagination has a significant role to play.

I’m not interested in writing another biography – there are plenty of good ones about Ruskin already. Rather, I think fiction can add another dimension to our understanding of this brilliant but unhappy man. I want to show how his writing is the result of his character, and that he has something of interest to say to a twenty-first century readership: I hope to bring Ruskin to a new audience. Much has been made of the scandal of his failed marriage but what often seems to be forgotten is that he’s a hugely significant thinker. His ideas form the basis for much of what we still consider important, including the universal right to education, the welfare state, and the protection of the natural environment.

One of the strengths of fiction is that it’s a way of imagining what it’s like to be another person. The character featured in my writing is very much my Ruskin – I’m not claiming it’s a definitive portrait (partly because surely there’s no such thing). Nevertheless, it is the life and work of a real man that is inspiring my fiction, so I’m anxious to avoid major errors. If I write about him tucking into roast goose at Christmas, and a Ruskin scholar later tells me that Ruskin hated goose, I won’t be too worried – it’s not fundamental to his character. But if I depict him being cruel to his servants, when in fact Ruskin was known for his empathy and kindness – well, then I will feel that my novel is a failure.

Are there any ethical considerations? My portrait of Ruskin will be largely sympathetic, which I think makes some difference to any ethical qualms. But what right do I have to write a novel about him at all? I don’t know Ruskin and I’m not making any claims for special insight into him. Although my novel is written in third person, the narrator has access to his thoughts – is it a breach of Ruskin’s privacy for me to be imagining an interior life for him? The truth is that I can’t know what it’s like to be my husband, let alone John Ruskin, a man who moved in very different circles from me, and who died in 1900. But imagining the lives of others is nonetheless an important part of literature; indeed, it’s an important part of being an empathetic human being.

Perhaps I’d feel differently about approaching Ruskin as my subject matter if he was still alive: John Mullan discusses novels about celebrities and suggests using real people is a necessary part of writing fiction. But ultimately each writer has to make these decisions for themselves. What do you think – is fictionalising a real person a breach of their privacy or a unique way of re-imagining their life?

This is the first post by Creative Writing tutor Vicky MacKenzie

Image Credit: ‘Ruskin Self-Portrait, in Blue Neckcloth’ (1873)


  1. Elizabeth Underwood 28 May 2014 at 5:02 pm

    Very pleased to see this post here, Vicky, as this is a question I often tussle with. A breach of privacy is surely taking opposition to biography-as-fiction too far. Re-imagining a life provides insights of a kind it is not the purpose of historians to provide – the tenderness Thomas Cromwell has for his daughters in Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ is tremendously engaging because of the contrast it provides with the calculating servant and administrator most of us had in our minds until we read the fictionalised version of his life. And I wonder whether Lady Ottoline Morrell didn’t rather enjoy the fictionalised depiction (and exaggeration) of her characteristics in D H Lawrence’s fiction? She did, after all, forgive him for them.

    1. Vicky MacKenzie 29 May 2014 at 11:20 am

      Hi Elizabeth, thank you for responding to my post. I do wonder if it makes a difference, ethically-speaking, if the portrayal of the person is unsympathetic? I agree that Mantel gives us a version of Cromwell that is very engaging, but Thomas More doesn’t come off too well! Perhaps Lady Ottoline Morrell was (secretly) flattered?

  2. barbarahenderson 29 May 2014 at 8:47 pm

    That’s a very interesting post, Vicky. I thought about Hilary Mantel too! I think you have nailed the important point which is that you would not write anything that fundamentally altered the truth of (what you know of) his character. And we journalists always used to say (and it’s a fact) – you can’t libel the dead!

  3. liz cashdan 5 June 2014 at 7:35 pm

    I’m really interested in the issue of whether fiction can actually reach a truth that historians can’t reach. Amos Oz and David Grossman, Israeli novelists, have both claimed that the novelist can get to a different truth from the historian. When I was researching my PhD on Romantic women novelists, I came across David Harvey, geographer at Johns Hopkins, who said that if you want to know about the South Wales coal fields in the middle of the 20th century, you should read Raymond Williams’ novels, not sociological accounts. And in last week’s New Statesman, Jonathan Smith argues that the “novelist and dramatist can reach where the historian and the biographer rarely do.” As he says, “Sticking to the facts does not take you to the truth beyond events.”
    As a poet who likes to give voices to people from the past, I would like to add “and the poet” where Smith says “novelist and dramatist.”

    1. Vicky MacKenzie 11 June 2014 at 11:27 am

      Thanks Barbara and Liz for your comments. The idea of there being literary ‘truth’ which is different from other types of truth is a concept which fascinates me too. I believe that it’s conveyed in part by the literary form (whether it’s a poem, play or piece of prose fiction) and therefore it’s not something you can easily paraphrase. There’s certainly far more to our understanding of truth than just facts, why is why we bother to read and write literature (made up stuff!) at all.

      I’d love to know what any OCA students think about any issues raised by this blog or the comments posted here.

  4. jsumb 11 June 2014 at 12:21 pm

    The notion that one might believe an historical account as truth has not been one that I have ‘believed’ for some time and as a photography student, whose media is often presented as ‘truth’, it is something that I have wrestled with for some time. I find that there many similarities with fictional writing and photography, and perhaps most visual arts. The work of the artist in framing, contextualising and presenting are matters of consideration for both genres I think. Photography is a record – historical – and mediated through the conscious effort of the artist, much as writing is. However I think the most effective way to tackle truth is by fiction, something I’ve been thinking a lot about in my studies.
    What did occur to me though as I read this post, is not about the fictionalised account of someone that had previously existed, famous or otherwise, or maybe even a contemporary life; but that of a fictional character. I’m thinking here, for example, of Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ which has inspired some of my recent course work; there are other examples and I am wondering whether the notion of truth becomes any less clear or more muddied because of that second decoupling?


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