Friday, September 20, 2013

Myth of the Marquee Character

Julius Caesar

Two weeks ago, I wrote about what I look for in historical fiction as a reader.

This week, I wanted to touch on something that I’ve discussed on several occasions with fellow writers, agents, and fans of historical fiction: the idea of the ‘Marquee Character’.

When I speak with true fans of historical fiction, I often find that they don’t read because there is a big name of history in the book. More often, they pick up a book because of the period in which it takes place, and because they like the premise of the book.

I’ve read a lot of historical fiction and seen a lot of historical movies that don’t feature marquee characters.

This reminds me of something a New York literary agent once said after reading my full manuscript. It went something like this:

“Your story and historical details are great, but you just don’t have a marquee character. People would rather read the hundredth novel about Julius Caesar than a book about some emperor they don’t know anything about.”

Alexander the Great
Another agent some months later told me this: “I like the story and your writing. When you’ve finished your Alexander (the Great) novel, definitely let me know.”

At the time those statements were infuriating. I was being told I had a good story, good style, good history, but then ‘no marquee character’!

Of course now, it’s all water under the Roman bridge. I’ve learned a lot since then, grown as a writer and a reader, and had the chance to speak with, and read books by, many other wonderful writers.

The lesson I’ve learned is this:

When it comes to historical fiction/fantasy, it isn’t the presence of a marquee character that draws readers in and makes them remember a book long after they’ve finished. It’s the historical period and the manner in which the story is told.

‘Hold on, one second!’ you might say. ‘If there is a book about Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, I’m much more likely to pick that up than any other.”

That’s true to an extent. Especially for readers new to historical fiction. Certainly, I take notice when a new book about Alexander or Caesar comes out. They are the celebrities of history and we can’t get enough of celebrities, can we?

Of course we can. If anything, I’m even more choosey when it comes to books about the biggies of history simply because there are so many books about them and I don’t want to waste my time. I don’t want to read about the same person over and over again. I know what happens.

It’s the period and how the story is told that will draw me in.

I think that the absolute need for a ‘Marquee Character’ is a total myth.

The Roman Empire
A 'Marquee' Period
How about a ‘Marquee Period’ instead? And that will be different for each reader.

We all have our favourite periods of history in which we prefer to read, write or watch.

As I’ve said before, time is precious. When I picked up a book about Hannibal (a marquee character, to be sure) I had to put it down because the story did not accurately portray the period or world through which Hannibal was moving. What I wanted was a story set in the time of Carthage’s struggle with Rome, and I didn’t feel that I got that.

There are numerous books in which main characters are ‘nobodies’ in history – soldiers, whores, farmers, sailors, widows etc. etc. It doesn’t matter, really. They all have stories to tell.

A Roman Woman
Gene Wolfe’s Latro in the Mist is about an unknown Latin mercenary who fought for the Persians in Greece. Gillian Bradshaw’s The Sun’s Bride is about an unknown Rhodian sea captain who is chasing pirates in ancient Greece. Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series’ fictional protagonist is Gordianus the Finder. In the latter series, Caesar is never more than background. It’s the period that Saylor is writing in and how he brings it to life that makes it such wonderful reading. You can read my interview with Steven HERE.

As far as writing, I’m a big believer in writing the story you need to write. Yes, I have started my own Alexander trilogy, but that‘s more because I have a particular story of Alexander that I want to tell, a story that hasn’t been told. In that project, my main character isn’t anyone important, a horse breeder’s son. But his story is taking place in a period of history that is exciting.

Medieval Peasantry
Whether a period is a ‘marquee period’ depends entirely on the reader and writer and what they want.

Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Medieval Britain and France, Renaissance Italy etc. etc. etc. – all of these periods may be ‘marquee’ to one person but completely uninteresting to another.

I guess what I’m finally saying is this:

Writers: write the story you want to write.

Readers: read the stories you want to read.

Everyone: explore the past beyond Alexander and Caesar. Get to know the nobodies of history, and in so doing, get a better understanding of it.

Thanks for reading. 

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