Check some of these characters out:
…out of the crumbling ruins of a mighty empire, a dancing girl catches the eye of a mysterious and treacherous foreign mercenary, becoming first his lover and then one of his trusted lieutenants. She helps him carve out a position of power and when he dies, she takes over his army, leading them to victory after victory, eventually saving the Emperor. To her enemies she is a witch, and to her men, an idol. When the Empire finally falls before foreign invaders, she retains her own power and negotiates with the invaders on her own terms.
…the greatest poet of his age, brilliant and arrogant, who’s words can sway crowds and shake governments. Although he’s a twisted little troll of a man, his magnetic, almost Svengali-like charm seduces the great beauties of his age to serve his insatiable lusts. A lover of war, he helps lead his nation into a bloody and pointless conflict. Surprisingly, his love of war does not conceal a coward, although well into middle age, he becomes a combat pilot, loses the use of one eye and still returns to the air. When larger war ends, his is just beginning. He takes a force to capture a city on the sea, seducing to his side the very troops his government sends to stop him. Once installed in power over the city, he presides, for nearly a year and a half, over a strange, decadent sort-of Fascist Woodstock, like something worthy of Fellini.
…a madman, a braggart and a fool, he was the last man you would ever want to trust with the price of a postage stamp much less a capital ship. He’d already lost four ships underneath him and lived in semi-permanent/ exile at . But when word came to the capital that their enemies had deployed some of their more massive battleships to the far corners of the Empire, he was the only man left who could take the job. With nothing more than a couple of broken-down cargo ships, a handful of military rejects, notably unsuited for the job and an ego as big as his abilities were small, he would venture far from the protection of his Empire, and against all odds, he would survive the adventure, defeat the enemy and in the process, become a god.
It’s the stuff that dreams are made of, high adventure, unlikely heroes, sudden reversals and twist endings. Good, solid genre fiction, surely? Heck, if you’re anything like me, you’re already wondering where you can read these novels, ’cause they sound like rip-roaring tales.
And they are. But, as you probably already figured, they are also quite true.
-The first is Farzana, the Begum Samru (ca 1753–1836), a real-life action heroine, who actually did rise from a dancing girl to commander of the mercenary army of her husband (who was so mysterious that to this day nobody can agree on what country he was actually born in!) and one of the most powerful nobles of the late Mughal Empire, who was able to preserve her power past the fall of the Mughal Emperors and the rise of the British Raj.
-The second is Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938), a best-selling popular playwright and poet in the later 19th/early 20th century, who’s 15 month (mis)rule of the city-state of Fiume (modern day Rijeka) in 1919-1920 inspired the pomp and theatricality of Mussolini’s Fascists. The strangest part of his story is that, after inciting something like 2000 Italian soldiers to mutiny, after his time as ‘Commandante’ of ‘the Republic of Carnero’, he just quietly moved back to Italy without any consequences and lived out the last twenty years of his life in a government-provided townhouse until he died of syphilis just before the Second World War.
-The third is Lt.Cmdr. Geoffrey Spicer-Simson (1876-1947) was a sarong-wearing, tattooed, narcissistic compulsive liar, eccentric and failed military officer who led a desperate expedition (“Simson’s Circus”) in 1915 to take out a pair of steam-driven battleships the Germans had shipped in to Lake Tanganyika (by train! They disassembled them, put them on a train and reassembled them on a lake), using nothing more than a pair of tiny surplus motorboats. And he did it with flying colors! His exploits made him a minor god to the local Holoholo people and served as the inspiration for the book and later movie The African Queen.
The point here is that no matter how eccentric or improbable or over the top the characters we may create when we’re telling stories, History is almost always stranger than fiction (unless the fiction is by China Mieville, nothing is stranger than China Mieville). This is important, I think, for two reasons: 1) History is a fantastic source for characters and situations (all three of the examples above are ones that I have plans to use in future projects) and the better you understand the history you’re stea..ah, ‘gaining inspiration’ from, the more real it will seem to your readers. But there’s another point here, I think, one almost as (if not more) important as the first. And that is 2) Knowing that people like THOSE above are real, it frees us as authors to create wild, over the top characters of our own. Reality, after all, has created a history full of Unlikely Heroes, Mad Villains and everything In-Between. And if Reality can do it, why can’t we?
(Special thanks go out to my college history professor Doctor Sankey for this post. After all, she introduced me to ALL THREE of the figures featured in this post. Like I always say “If you’re going to steal, steal from the best…”)