Who hasn't tossed out the adage "truth is stranger than fiction" after hearing some absurd but true tale? In fact, the saying has turned cliché from overuse. But when it comes to fiction writers, reanimating the lives of real people is a serious matter. And many readers find their interest especially piqued by novels based on real persons. Could it be that we are compelled to compare ourselves to others, and, when those others are real people, that their tales are even more captivating?
In its most basic form story is about confronting life's questions and quandaries. Writer E.A. Durden claims that "it is the job of fiction to portray the full spectrum of human possibility, to remind ourselves of everything we are capable of -- from exploring the heavens to breaking out of the clink." What better way to explore the possibilities than through actual lived experiences?
So if we agree that one particular fascination stories hold for us is the means of measuring ourselves against others, it is not at all difficult to understand the attraction of stories based on real characters. Unbelievable as their motives may be, far-fetched as their actions and circumstances may seem, these people actually lived. We humans are meaning-making machines, and stories based on real people make the most delectable sustenance for our story-hungry minds. Witness the popularity of a spate of recent novels based on real characters. The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the resilience of Anne Morrow Lindbergh during her and her husband's strange history. Mary Beth Keane's rendering of Typhoid Mary in Fever reveals the immigrant woman who set off the New York's typhoid epidemic. And my own novel, Parlor Games, recounts the tale of a beautiful and cunning woman who conned her way across America, Shanghai, London, and points in between during the Gilded Age. I can't tell you how many of my readers have contacted me with declarations to the effect, "Knowing that May was a real person made the story all the more entertaining."
I believe we readers take particular delight in stories about real people. For if they could mastermind the most daring plot to separate a millionaire from his money, what adventures might be in store for any of us? If they could rise from poor beginnings and attain greatness, what might the meekest among us achieve? Only characters stranger than fiction can say.