Thursday, June 03, 2021

Fidelity to the Truth in Biographical Fiction, an essay by Maryka Biaggio, author of The Point of Vanishing

Novelist Maryka Biaggio, who writes historical fiction about real-life people, is visiting today with an essay about an issue that all writers of biographical novels must address.  Welcome, Maryka!


Fidelity to the Truth in Biographical Fiction
Maryka Biaggio

“The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale. As a novelist, I have tools no historian should touch: I can manipulate time and space, extrapolate from the written record to invent dialogue and incident, create fictional characters to bring you close to the historical figures, and fall back on my imagination when the research runs out.”  --William Martin

Historical fiction based on real people is not unusual, and many readers love to eavesdrop on the lives of royals, celebrities, and notorious persons. Although biographies can satisfy some of that yen, fiction does something biography can’t always do—bring us inside these people’s worlds and show us their doubts, their fears, and the words they might have spoken.

But what of the importance of honesty in rendering these lives? Does the novelist owe it to his or her subjects to tell the tale true? If not, why would an author base a fictional account on an actual person in the first place? If it’s wild storytelling an author is after, why would he or she not steer clear of even insinuating that the subject of the novel is an actual person? And don’t readers expect a certain fidelity to the truth in biographical fiction? If they are led to believe a novel is based on the life of an actual person, don’t they have the right to expect they will find some resemblance to the life of that person?

I think most readers and writers would agree that, yes, novelists who base their stories on actual persons should adhere to the generally established truths about that person. And readers can reasonably expect that stories about real people not deviate wildly from the facts (unless they are labeled as alternative history).

But the “truth” and “facts” are not always easy to agree on, even among historians and biographers who aim for a high degree of accuracy. We can probably agree on the dates and certain facts about well-known events—say the particulars of a Civil War battle. But when it comes to the generals commanding their troops, we may dispute the motives behind their battle strategies. So what can readers reasonably expect and how can authors more or less hew to those expectations?

Joyce Carol Oates takes an interesting approach to this issue in her novel Blonde, which is certainly about Marilyn Monroe. Oates never refers to her subject by that name, but rather as Norma Jean Baker. Although Monroe’s affair with John F. Kennedy is a fairly well-established fact, she refers to him only as The President. Oates is not purporting to write a biography of Marilyn Monroe. She says in her Author’s Note that “Blonde is a radically distilled ‘life’ in the form of fiction, and, for all its length, synecdoche is the principle of appropriation.” She goes on to explain ways in which her account differed from her subject’s real life, and she also notes the many biographies and books on related topics she consulted. But this novel is a masterful work, portraying the inner world of its protagonist more richly than any biography ever could. In fact, I consider it Oates’ masterpiece, and she herself told me in 2009 that it is a particular favorite of hers.

Of course, there are many authors who are not shy about using their subjects’ actual names, sometimes in the titles, including Burr by Gore Vidal (about Aaron Burr) and I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon. In the case of Lawhon’s book, the central question is whether the protagonist, Anna Anderson, actually was Anastasia Romanov. Lawhon explains in her Author’s Note that “it will come as no surprise . . . that I had to take liberties with this story. I did so primarily because the historical record contains a cast of hundreds, and that is simply untenable for a novel of any sort, much less one that is already complex and nonlinear.” She, like Oates, goes on to list authoritative sources and to articulate some of the ways that her novel deviates from the historical record--“all of them necessary for the sake of clarity and narrative drive.” So, again, both Oates and Lawhon are striving for a certain narrative authenticity, which sometimes necessitates deviations from the complex truth or from potentially confusing twists and turns.

I write novels about actual people, and I have had to confront questions about fidelity to the truth over and over in the telling. If I’m going to recount a story about an actual person, I believe I owe it to the reader to render the story in a way that doesn’t completely obscure that person’s actual life. But stories must make sense, they must adhere to an arc, they must take a person from one point to the next in a way that makes sense. Real life isn’t always this “logical,” but we expect a certain logic in novels. We realize Hamlet must pay a price for his indecision, we expect insight into some of the consequential decisions Marilyn Monroe made in her tragic life, and we want to know if Anna Anderson was a fraud or royalty. In the words of Iain M. Banks, “The trouble with writing fiction is that it has to make sense, whereas real life doesn't.”

So biographical fiction about historical figures has a tall order to fill—to show us the inner worlds of the character, to bring a certain fidelity to the story of their life, and to satisfy our curiosity about the meaning of their existence. Done well, biographical fiction can do all this and more—it can captivate and entertain.

About the Author: 

Maryka Biaggio is a psychology professor turned novelist who specializes in historical fiction based on real people. She enjoys the challenge of starting with actual historical figures and dramatizing their lives–figuring out what motivated them to behave as they did, studying how the cultural and historical context may have influenced them, and recreating some sense of their emotional world through dialogue and action. Doubleday published her debut novel, Parlor Games, in January 2013. She lives in Portland, Oregon, that edgy green gem of the Pacific Northwest.

About The Point of Vanishing

The Point of Vanishing is based on the true story of child prodigy writer, Barbara Follett. In 1939, at the age of 25, she vanished, never to be heard from again. Now historical novelist Maryka Biaggio brings her enigmatic story—and mysterious disappearance—to life.

Intrigued?  Check out the author's book trailer below.


  1. It sounds very intriguing.

  2. Thanks for having me, Sarah. I always enjoy your blogs!

    1. Thanks, Maryka, for the great, thought-provoking essay and your comments!

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on fact vs fiction. Well stated

  4. Hi Kimberly, I have always been fascinated by how fiction can render deep truths better than nonfiction!