Based on truth: Writing fiction about a real-life character


21 July 2023
Novelist Russell Franklin looks at the issues involved in fictionalising real-life events

“How do you make a novel out of something as complicated as a life?” It’s a question that haunted me over the two years I spent writing my debut novel, The Broken Places. So much so the main character, Gregory Hemingway, Ernest’s youngest child, asks it aloud when they’re trying to write a memoir that encompasses their troubled relationship with a father they resented, despised, and loved with all their heart.

All I knew when I started out was that I wanted to tell Greg’s story for a lot of complicated reasons I won't go into here. Suffice to say they were flawed and tragic, but also brilliant and defiant. In those early days, I naively assumed that I could simply research everything that happened in their life, write it all down, and that would be the novel done…

It did not turn out that way.

The more I researched, the more nebulous my potential book seemed to become. Greg’s life was full of contradictions, shadowy unknowns (often from being swept under the historical rug), and strange cul-de-sacs that seemed to go nowhere. They were bipolar before the condition was really understood, and the cycles of creation and destruction that ruled their life were at the same time tragic and narratively unsatisfying. They were transgender, but continued to present as both a man and a woman throughout their life and never settled on one female name (hence why I use “they” here, and generally use the name Greg - the only one they consistently used throughout their life, though Gloria was a favourite). They became obsessed with things for months or even years at a time (marathon running, Scientology, hunting), only to drop all interest seemingly overnight.

All in isolation fascinating, but what did any of that have to do with each other? Where was the novel?

I would love to tell you, fellow writer, that I solved the puzzle and can serve it neatly up for your scrutiny, but the truth I ultimately had to come to terms with was that no piece of art can ever contain a life. Even the novel, an art form wide and deep as an ocean, comes up short. Which meant I needed to make some choices, needed to decide what my story was going to be about on the most fundamental level beyond just being inspired by the life of Gregory Hemingway.

Unfortunately, I only realised this after I’d written a huge, sprawling, achronological first draft. So, in case it can save any potential writer out there future pain, here’s my advice. Early on, when the research is done and the writing is about to begin, take a little while to look down on all those seemingly random events from a mile high view and ask this: what is the single most profound change in my central character over the course of these events?

When I asked that question, I realised that what The Broken Places is truly about is Greg learning to live free of shame. It’s that simple.

Change is the engine of story, and if you can spot your change, your arc of progression, you can start moving. Keep it in mind and it will tell you what to give weight and space to (everything that serves or echoes it) and what to cut (everything that has nothing to do with it, or distracts from it).

And while I’m on the subject, do not hesitate to cut. Ideally you’ll be smarter than I was and decide what to leave out before you write it, but if you have fifty sparkling pages that don’t really serve the larger arc, they have to go. I ended up cutting a truly bizarre Scientology section, a childhood escapade where Greg and their father hunted Nazi U-boats in the Atlantic, a stint where they tried to be a coffee grower in Africa, and god knows what else (they lived one hell of a life).

Ultimately, you’re a writer, not a historian, and your glowing tribute to the past won't be much of a monument if it’s not a story anyone wants to read. Never lie, never contradict the record, but tell a story.

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The Broken Places by Russell Franklin is published by Phoenix (£18.99)



Interested in angles on history? Read Katie Daysh's account of queering the past in her historical fiction.