On one of the e-mail lists I inhabit from time to time, an interesting discussion has been going on. It concerns the question of whether one prefers historical fiction with real historical persons as central characters, or whether one prefers historical fiction with fictional characters.
Let me say at the outset, that I prefer the latter. I've tried to read several fictional biographies over the last few years, and frankly, I haven't found them all that interesting. Why? Because, especially if the central character is well-known, the plot is, in essence, predictable! Margaret George's Autobiography of Henry VIII comes to mind here. I never finished it, although Margaret George is an excellent writer, and many people like her material. But really, how many books can people write about Henry VIII without "saying it all over again"? Some writers can pull this off, especially if they are dealing with people and times that aren't so well known. This is one reason why I like the earlier Middle Ages --- there were plenty of interesting real people around then, but often you have little to really "go on" about them.
To go a little further here, the debate came down to whether or not people preferred to
write about real people in real historical situations, or fictional characters who participated in some historical event. It turned out(though I wasn't terribly surprised, in one sense, that some writers consider writing about real people "easier", because they don't have do so much story plotting. Well, that depends. These writers often seem to feel that you can "invent" their emotions, and it's enough trouble trying to "get at" the historical person's actual character or personality, and let the history take care of the plot. I guess that's fine if you want to do character studies, but that is not enough to a novel make, as they say.
This doesn't mean interesting work can't be done about real people in real historical situations. Another of the debaters on this list, is writing a book about a real person who I think I've heard of, but is basically very obscure, yet apparently led a very interesting life. I am sure the writer of this novel did the best he could to learn as much as he could about the period in which the person lived, and tried to be as accurate about the accounts of that peson, as he could. But the author is dealing with "obscurity" and probably had to do a lot of inventing. This often works.
What doesn't work, for me, at least, is taking a very well-known character, and writing yet another fictional biography about him or her. As I said, try as these authors might, their lives are too well-known to be anything but predictable. And that "turns me off".
I much prefer something like Patricia Finney's TheFiredrake's Eye, which takes place in Elizabetghan England, but the majority of characters are products of Ms. Finney's imagination, working their way through very real historical events and processes. This makes for compelling reading if done right, and, if done right, may stimulate reader to learn more about whatgever period the author is writing about(though I myself am not a big fan of Tudor or Elizabethan; there's just too much of it).
And, I might modestly mention that my own work is, of course, in the latter category, though it is built around some very real medieval events. Some of the real people are well-known, but one of the characters, whose activities the story is basically built around, is historical but decidedly obscure. And two of the really central characters aredefinitely products of my doubtless overworked imagination! I've had a lot of fun digging out "historical nuggets" from a variety of sources, though, and even more fun putting them together ito my Great Medieval Science Fi ction Masterpiece(or should I call it "romantic science fiction"?). In any case, I continue to take the advice or writers who have gone before me, and read, read, read, everything I can get my hands on, not all of which is historical fiction, but is always valuable.