Written by Paul Briggs
Sometimes I notice certain patterns in my work. Protagonists who are smart, but not too smart and with a very practical bent to their intelligence. Geniuses who are given a choice between trying to save the entire world — and possibly failing — or trying to save only a small part of it and being more certain of success. Strong female characters with medical conditions that cause them to dominate whatever room they’re in whether they want to or not.
When I start to worry that I’m starting to create the same characters over and over again, I work on historical fiction. Specifically, alternate history, which is usually classified as science fiction, but which I like to think of as historical fiction that’s broken its chains. Suddenly you aren’t confined by actual events any more — you can kill Hitler if you feel like it, or have St. Petersburg overrun by zombies and vampires.
Up to a point, that is. Just as in regular historical fiction, if you’re going to put historical figures in your writing you have to read about them enough to get your facts straight. More than that, you have to consider their life experiences and what they learned from them in order to figure out what they would do in a given situation.
Doing this for my own timeline at alternatehistory.com (called “The Dead Skunk” — don’t ask) has meant studying all sorts of people, including James Madison, Lord Liverpool, the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon, Lord Castlereagh, Joachim Murat, John Quincy Adams… and these were just the beginning. When I started writing my version of the Caroline Affair, I was exposed to a whole galaxy of wonderful and horrible personalities I never could have invented on my own, most of whom I had never heard of.
But the biggest challenge I’ve faced in getting inside the head a historical character was in writing a monologue about John F. Kennedy. It was about his struggles with Addison’s disease — a thing Kennedy never spoke of in real life and in fact took pains to conceal, inventing other stories to account for his stays in the hospital. I called the monologue “The Picture of Health,” because that was what JFK tried so hard to present to the world.
Wrapping my mind around the contradictions of the man was one of the hardest writing tasks I’ve ever done. When healthy, he was strong enough to swim three and a half miles towing a wounded sailor — when sick, he could barely stand. He was brave enough to attack Japanese warships in pitch darkness, but not to join in the vote censuring Joe McCarthy. (The Boston Irish had a certain loyalty to McCarthy.)
So… writing historical fiction is a great challenge. By forcing yourself to get inside the heads of real people who were very different from you, you expand your ability as a writer to invent your own characters and make them more real.