Fictionalizing History

In the second chapter of my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order, the vampire mercenaries are hired to stop the advance of one of the most successful Ottoman rulers of all time, Suleyman the Magnificent. In the novel, their encounter happens in September 1566, the time of Suleyman’s actual death, after he set out from Constantinople to oversee the Ottoman campaigns in Hungary.

Suleyman

For the record, I don’t believe Suleyman was beset by vampires in 1566. My portrayal of the man is clearly meant to be fictional, but I tried to be both faithful and respectful to him in the novel. However, it was because of my fictionalized portrayal of Suleyman that I was fascinated to learn about the controversies surrounding a Turkish TV series about him called Magnificent Century. There’s a good article about the series and the controversy surrounding it at the New York Times website: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/17/world/middleeast/17iht-m17-soap.html.

In short, there are many in Turkey, including government officials, who would like to see the series ended because they don’t agree with the portrayal of Suleyman. Of particular note, the Supreme Board of Radio and Television in Turkey said that the channel broadcasting the series had wrongly exposed “the privacy of a historical person” and owed the public an apology. At the same time, the article points out the difficulties in knowing details of real historical people of 450 years ago.

It’s perhaps not surprising that I find it disheartening when a government tries to tell writers what stories they can and can’t tell. What’s more, as a writer of historical fiction, I think I’ve succeeded if I’ve interested the reader enough in a character to go learn more about their historical counterpart, even if the reader ultimately disagrees with my portrayal. That said, I do find myself fascinated by the notion of a historic, public figure having a right to privacy.

Here in the United States, public figures are discussed and fictionalized all the time. Sometimes it’s with the goal of understanding them from the perspective of our own times. Sometimes it’s simply with the goal of telling a good story. I suspect most would agree with me that we should respect historical, public figures enough to research them when we use them in our fiction, but do we owe them some privacy, too? Why or why not? I’d be interested in hearing what you think.

In the meantime, if you’d like to read my portrayal of Suleyman the Magnificent, you can pick up a copy of Vampires of the Scarlet Order at many fine book retailers including Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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