It’s time for a reader question! Rebecca W. wrote to me with this:
Would a book sell with the main fictional character becoming romantically involved with a real historical figure, but this romance used only to represent a theme, and would in the end not go anywhere? Would it be too unrealistic, or could the writer shape this romance so that it fits with the story, is not historically inaccurate, and is believable. I’m not saying that the character would end up marrying the historical figure, but there would be a romance. Would this work?
What a doozy! Let’s see if I can shed some light on the subject.
I’m not going to say it’s entirely impossible to pull this off, but I will say that it will be difficult. A lot of the difficulty depends largely on the historical figure. If you’re talking about adding a past romance to a very famous historical figure’s life, you’ll be almost certain to run into trouble. That’s because the historical person is known to have eventually married/not married.
Once the audience knows how it turns out, it’s hard to make it compelling. So, for example, it would be nigh on impossible to write a compelling story with romance between your fictional character and George Washington. We know George is going to marry Martha in the end, so you’re not going to get us emotionally invested in the relationship. And if George reciprocates the fictional character’s feelings, we might even be a little bit weirded out.
On the other hand, if your fictional character simply has a crush on George Washington, now we can believe it more easily. We know this character will be let down, and we will hopefully get a nice window into her soul when it happens. How will she handle it? That’s a story element!
It all comes down to emotional investment on the part of the audience. You need them onboard with the idea that this relationship can work, even if you’re going to break the ties in the end. Otherwise, your thematic point will probably feel weak.
All of the above, though, becomes less of a factor if you pick somebody more obscure. For instance, if you pick one of Washington’s lower officers, nobody really recognizes them. It’s a nice “Easter egg” if they look up the facts and discover this person actually existed, but there’s more room to suspend disbelief and get involved in the storyline.
Of course, if you think you have something great, go for it! Explore the idea, prove me wrong, and come back to say you told me so. I certainly won’t say this situation is completely impossible. With careful handling, it could probably be quite effective.
Want me to answer your story question? Just send me a message! There’s a good chance I’ll answer you in a future blog post.