Historical Figures: Behind the Mask

Monday, April 16th, 2012 | Uncategorized


Claire Ridgeway of the Anne Boleyn Files asked a question today on Facebook and Twitter that I had not given any thought to before. Namely, who was the real Thomas Boleyn? Beyond the father of Mary, George and Anne Boleyn, I mean. Was he truly the demon portrayed in The Other Boleyn Girl? Was he the smarmy pseudo-politician of The Tudors? Or was he a loving father caught up in the politics of the age? The true answer is probably none of the above.

I love to read about Tudor history but it is not my specialty. Still, the question lingers, how do we look back down the corridor of time to discern who these people really were?

As an historical fiction writer, I read the sources that tell us what these people did. Each source has a bias of its own which must be taken into account as I research. Luckily, since I am not an historian myself, I can revel in my own bias instead of trying to kill it. I can worship Eleanor of Aquitaine as the goddess she was. I can honor Anne Boleyn for her life and the tough choices she made, the choices that eventually killed her. I can even look at a popular villain like Thomas Boleyn and ask, could a man who educated his daughters so well be all bad?

How do we peer behind the masks of historical figures? I think this is a question that has many answers, and none. We read all we can, we search through the piles of what is known to discern some traces of who they may have been. All the while, we face the truth that we will never know them. So we glean what we can from history, then open our imaginations to ask the question, what if? What if Thomas Boleyn was a political, sometimes a villain, and a loving father too? If, as a writer, I could encompass a character who is all of those things and more, then I have come closer to drawing on the page the image of a full human being. As writers, that is what we strive for: to bring our characters, historical and otherwise, to life.

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4 Comments to Historical Figures: Behind the Mask

Christy K Robinson
April 16, 2012

Well, said. My WIP has two obvious villains. For the first, I found letters and a personal journal that told me another side of him–I’m pretty sure he was bipolar, so I can understand how he was torn. I used him as a sympathetic character (though still a villain) with his own POV. When I had to kill off his wife (she died of yellow fever), I gave him a beautiful scene, and I grieved with him.

With Villain #2, having read incidents in which he *thought* he was justified in his extreme actions, I’ve concluded that he was just a horrible man in every way, from beginning to end. I can’t bring myself to write from his head, so I used others who described and speculated on his actions from their POV. Villain #2 gave no mercy, and gets no mercy from me. I’ll trust that my readers are bright enough to make an image in their own minds.

As for protagonists, it’s important to remember to give them some faults (even if hidden from their own contemporaries), so we don’t get Beth March, the saintly, virginal, doomed sister in “Little Women.” Haha!

April 16, 2012

You’re right about giving a character flaws to make them well rounded. They usually come fully flawed, whether I notice or not. LOL Eleanor’s flaws look like beauty to me, I am so biased…

Heather Day Gilbert
April 17, 2012

Great post, and so true. For some time periods, there’s just more archaeological and written evidence than for others. I write Viking fiction, so I’m sort of limited in resources. I used the Icelandic sagas as my “guidebook,” since many things they said (previously doubted) are being proven true by tree records and archaeological evidence. I love taking real people and filling in the gaps on their stories–after all, isn’t that what all historical fiction does?

April 18, 2012

Heather, what a wonderful idea. The sagas must be a wonderful resource, a perfect place to stand as you leap into the past. I agree, filling in the gaps is my favorite part, fleshing out who these people may have been, giving them a voice in the present. That is a wonderful thing.

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