maybe it’s okay if they’re dead

I completed my Wheaton/Scalzi UnicornPegasusKittenFic tonight, making final adjustments and corrections a few hours before the deadline. I started working on the story right after the contest was announced, writing in fits and starts throughout the month. I meant to get it handed off to my beta readers a little earlier than yesterday, but I immensely appreciate the quick turnaround! I got great feedback about typos, geeky elements, and some quirky turns of phrase. I’m very happy with the result. While the contest has no requirement of exclusivity, I’m going to keep my story unpublished until the results are known. It seems more fun that way.

In the end, it wasn’t so terribly painful to write a piece of real person fiction (RPF). While I created a rather fantastic backstory for my piece, I avoided making changes to the essential characters or personal lives of the real people I was depicting. Their lives were the same, just transplanted to a ridiculous scenario. This made the whole thing more comfortable. I wasn’t ignoring the fact that they both have wives and children (though I also didn’t really write about their families, as that moved into creepier private territory), and I attempted to incorporate well-known aspects of their lives and proclivities. I also didn’t delve into particularly personal details – there was no speculation on what Wil Wheaton is wearing under his kilt in the painting. I avoided romance entirely, because that seemed like it would require me to ignore the real lives of real people and get a little too personal. I’m sure it would’ve been possible to write something respectful and entertaining about the obvious homoerotic undertones going on there (hello, giant spear!), but I steered clear and feel good about that.

I blogged and tweeted a bit about my discomfort with RPF, and a friend commented, “There’s a thin line between historical fiction & RPF but I think it’s there.” And that got me thinking: would my creepy feelings about this experience have been different if I’d been asked to write a story about two historical figures who were no longer alive? I think it would have been a lot easier, and my friend nailed the reason with a follow-up tweet – “Some historical figures are like characters now.” Yes! I don’t feel like it’s as weird or disrespectful to write fiction about historical figures who are long gone. Their lives have become part of our public record, and well-respected scholars have already dug into their histories. Reading the Wikipedia entry about John Quincy Adams feels far less voyeuristic than reading the one on John Scalzi. If I write John Quincy Adams into a sexual situation, he isn’t going to read it and be creeped out. His children aren’t going to read it. His descendants could read it, but that dilutes the weirdness – especially with a well-documented historical figure. No one would wonder about how I got so much deeply personal information about John Quincy Adams. I could write about where his children went to school or his medical records… neither of which would be appropriate if I was writing about John Scalzi. Time makes a huge difference here.

This also raised the question of whether Ben Franklin/John Adams slash fanfiction exists. I am assured that yes, it does – not only does Rule 34 assure it, but there’s a healthy little community of authors who write fanfiction based on the musical 1776 (plus those who write general historical fiction about the era). But, Mr. Adams!

Will I be writing more stories about real persons, living or dead? Probably not, unless there’s a specific request. Part of the fun of writing fiction is the ability to create worlds and characters from scratch – and writing about real people means you can get your characters wrong. I could be persuaded to write about that unicorn-pegasus-kitten again, though. He was a charmer.

2 comments ↓

#1 Maggie on 07.01.10 at 9:55 pm

I agree that distance (if not death) reduces the creepy factor. And I think you’d be surprised how much historical fiction/RPF is out there where you least expect it. There are real people inserted into fiction all the time from Shakespeare to Bill & Ted. And I remember reading a story about a mouse and Ben Franklin as a kid. And obviously historical fiction is an actual genre. From Morgan Llwellyn writing about the Celts, to Pauline Gedge fictionalizing the lives of Egyptian Pharoahs and Caractus during the Claudian Invasion of Britain.

The best example I can think of actually is Shakespeare in Love, which not only fictionalizes a real person but has him in a romance with a fictional character.

My fanfic genre of interest (Beatles) is interesting because they made characters of themselves, by playing fictionalized versions of themselves in Help! and a Hard Day’s Night. Also, while only 2 of them are dead, their personal lives are already researched in excrutiating (and extremely personal detail) in hundreds of books. 🙂

In my fanfic on interest

#2 saram on 07.01.10 at 9:59 pm

I’m peripherally aware of historical fiction, but it’s never been of interest to me – not enough real-life historical vampires, I guess. 😉

So I never know what it’s really like or how much of it would also creep me out!

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