Brainstorming exercise: “Head-of-state fiction”: Do or don’t?

Nothing to see here; just an argument I had with myself over whether turning world leaders into fictional characters is both feasible and worth the hassle.

Examples

Lincoln by Gore Vidal; I, Putin by Jennifer Ciotta; I, Claudius by Robert Graves; Senility of Vladimir P. by Michael Honig; Autobiography of Joseph Stalin by Richard Lourie; Margaret George’s Cleopatra and Henry VIII novels; Taft 2012 by Jason Heller; Napoleon Symphony by Anthony Burgess; Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes; Imperium by Robert Harris; Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer by Seth Grahame-Smith; Imperial Highness by Evelyn Anthony; The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak; I, the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos; Explosion in a Cathedral by Alejo Carpentier; Destiny: A Novel of Napoleon and Josephine by Bertram Fields; Elizabeth by Evelyn Anthony; The October Horse by Colleen McCullough; the Conn Iggulden Conqueror and Emperor series; Czar! A Novel of Ivan the Terrible by Larry Townsend.

(Special thanks to Cortes over at the Kremlin Stooge for bringing some of these titles to my attention.)

Obviously, HOSF isn’t something new; people have been writing this kind of book for a while.

The case for

  • HOSF can provide unique perspective on how historical events unfolded.
  • It’s an opportunity to meditate on human society, the meaning and perils of power, historical memory, etc.
  • HOSF can humanize distant or misunderstood leaders.
  • Or one can get creative and take the narrative in a different direction: satirizing a particular era or making connections to the present day.
  • Research can be fun*.

The case against

  • The head-of-state MC is sometimes used as a vessel to project the author’s political views. Other times (s)he becomes a strawman for the author to attack.
  • It’s easy to demonize a leader; one must avoid defamation.
  • Getting into the head of/assuming the thoughts of a famous figure is quite the task. And sometimes controversial, depending on who you pick.
  • It’s easy for a compelling story to get bogged down in historical research; the book might start to sound like a biography rather than a novel.

Other notes

  • Most HOS who have gotten the fictional treatment are deceased. The exception is Vladimir Putin, who has received three full-length novels and has made cameos in numerous espionage thrillers. Is this coincidental, or is there an unspoken rule saying that if you’re going to turn a HOS into a fictional character, then you should wait until they die? (Respect?) Provided that a rule does exist, why has Putin already been fictionalized 3+ times?
  • Mainstream bias: Writers go after the most sensational figures b/c they know the masses would want to read about them. Are fictionalized figures affected by the prevailing political opinions at the time of writing? (If a modern performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar could interpret Caesar as a Trumplike figure, I can only imagine what writers might try when making HOSF today.)
  • A certain rigidity and adherence to historical research is expected when setting a figure’s novel during their lifetime, but what happens when you transplant the figure elsewhere or introduce sci-fi/fantastical elements for satiric purposes?
  • When is too soon, and when is not soon enough?

What’s your opinion on giving real-life leaders the fictional treatment? Be sure to leave a comment below.

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5 comments

    • Yes, actually – there’s Crooked by Austin Grossman, a weird historical fiction-paranormal mashup. There’s also Watergate, but I don’t know whether to count that one since the story is told mostly through Nixon’s entourage.

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  1. Putin has received the HOSF treatment in Russia as well as in the West.He’s a somewhat heroic figure in the genre fiction thriller “Prezident” by Aleksandr Olbik (2002) and the tastefully titled “Zavtrak s poloniem” by Natalya Aleksandrova (2007) begins in the President’s Kremlin office. I suspect there are other similar examples.
    My own view on HOSF is, perhaps counterintuitively, that the nearer it tries to get to showing the real person, the less I like it. A stylised, obviously invented HOS character, that I can cope with. But when a serious attempt is made to say “this is what Stalin/Putin/Hitler” were really thinking, my academic empirical evidence alert kicks in and I rather just be given the facts and make up my own mind.

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    • Interestingly enough, I own a copy of Prezident, well as Maxim Kononenko’s Vladimir Vladimirovich(TM), which came into my possession one way or another. I’ve read neither. There’s also 2008 by Sergei Dorenko, which is set around the events leading up to the 2008 presidential election in Russia. But Zavtrak s poloniem – never heard of that one before.
      Yeah, fiction writers ballsy enough to take on a real HOS must walk a very fine line.
      Thanks for sharing, etb66!

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  2. I half plan on writing a sci fi story in which not that advanced Aliens wish to gain Earth as a colonial market and are generally speaking more “Cortez” then “Overlord”. Meaning the aliens are relying more on building coalitions, exploiting resentment against the USA, fitting into preexisting myths etc. then on their (still quite superior) technology or direct military power.

    It does feature Putin as the avatar of “peak pragmatism” coupled with “weapons grade cynicism”, this combination is to some extent a caricature but ends up serving him decently well.

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