I was exceedingly lucky in high school, I had history teachers that focused on individual people in history and not just events. This meant we saw past the monuments and to the real people living real lives. We knew that our heroines and heroes had warts, and loved them all the more for their amazing achievements. We could see the struggle and the personal courage it took to stay on track, and succeed spectacularly or fail magnificently.
As I have mentioned in previous blogs, using historical personages as characters or in ‘cameo appearances’ is one of the genre markers of the Steampunk literary genre. In my current work in progress, Charles Darwin, his wife and children are making an appearance, as well as a character loosely based on Oscar Wilde. My character based on Charles Darwin shares many of the original’s physical, intellectual, and personal characteristics, but I am picking and choosing through my research to tailor this representation of Darwin to my story.
This isn’t a shortcut to characterization. In fact, I have spent a lot of time researching Darwin, reading biographies, and his own published works, to get a proper handle on the gentleman. I know that, in his later years, he became retiring partly from ill health, partly because he wanted to spend time with his research, and partly due to the mixed reception to his theory of evolution. I know that he was greatly dependant on his wife for moral support when he did give lectures. We might take his finding for granted, but in his day he was considered controversial … most tellingly, he was never knighted for his contributions to science. With his sensitive nature, I can guess how disappointed he must have felt, even with the support of his friends and many noted scientists.
By using real historical characters, you can ground your text and give verisimilitude to the more fanciful aspects of your narrative. But you don’t have to use just the ‘superstars’ of the Victorian era to gain this advantage. A little extra research can uncover a multitude of interesting people. Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, took the basis of Darwin’s theories and applied them t the human race, inventing the pseudoscience of Eugenics.
Just looking at a picture of a person can help inform your fictional version of that character. Notice how extremely well groomed Sir Francis Galton is? I would guess he was a man of some wealth and education, and indeed, he was a polymath and science innovator, and quite the racist. However, you have to remember that racism was the norm, rather than not, in his era. Obviously, intelligence ran in the family, but it could be argued that Francis was actually more intelligent that Charles, as he was an expert and innovator in many fields. For example, it was his work that is still used today in identifying individual fingerprints. The cousins share a similar determined expression, and Francis obviously supported his cousin’s theory of heredity since he built the idea of eugenics upon it. So, is he a likeable man, or not?
That is the exciting part of the process … you decide.