Real People in Novels

Without intending to, I read, back-to-back, two books with protagonists based on actual people. All the Stars in the Heavens, by Adriana Trigiani, is the fictionalized story of Loretta Young, who had a baby out of wedlock, fathered by Clark Gable. Shirley, by Susan Scarf Merrell, features the author Shirley Jackson as a main character.

I enjoyed both books but couldn’t help wondering about the accuracy of the character depictions. I wondered if Loretta Young was truly the hard-driven, ambitious actress portrayed, and if she was truly in love with Clark Gable as told in the book. As for Shirley, I speculated about the veracity of Shirley Jackson’s psychological weaknesses and her philandering husband. Of course these are novels, so the authors have license to create events, character behaviors, and so on. However, I couldn’t help thinking about the real people these characters are based on. As I read, I occasionally googled the names of some of the minor characters, also based on actual persons, to learn more about them. While googling, I came across articles that referred to Loretta Young’s claim, repeated to the media, after her death, by her daughter-in-law, that she had been date-raped by Clark Gable. That colored my reading of the novel. I could not put aside that information and immerse myself in the fictional depiction of Young and Gable as ardent lovers. It’s not the fault of the author. I think it’s a tricky thing to depict a character based on a real person, especially one who has died only recently. Some of their children and relatives are probably still alive. How does an author take liberties with the lives of these famous individuals while there are still people living who knew them personally? (Of course, an author could interview such individuals, but that does not appear to have been the case in either one of these books.)

I am seriously considering writing an historical novel. If I do undertake this challenging effort, I will avoid using any actual historical figures, unless they are long dead (e.g. George Washington) and only play minor roles in the story. I wouldn’t feel comfortable trying to bring to life someone who recently existed. This is not to denigrate Adriana Trigiani or Susan Scarf Merrell, who wrote good books with good characters. With her depiction of Shirley Jackson, Merrell especially sparked my interest in reading more about this intriguing author. Thanks to these two authors, Loretta Young and Shirley Jackson can continue to be remembered, or be introduced to readers who have never heard of them.


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