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Historical Lives in Fiction, Characters in Fiction: Are they the same people?

Historical Lives in Fiction, Characters in Fiction: Are they the same people?

By Emily Sutherland

Published Online (2007)

Abelard and Heloise by Edmund Blair Leighton

Abstract: There is a strong relationship between history and fiction. The characters created by writers, either in historical novels and literary fiction, reflect that relationship. Many of the characteristics of fictional characters can also be ascribed to characters depicted in historical fiction and biographical writing.

Excerpt: In examining the concept of the identity of characters portrayed in a written text I have turned, not to literary criticism, but to philosophy. This seems particularly apt because one of the important characters in my novel, Abelard, is a philosopher, and the letters between him and Heloise include philosophical debate.

As a teacher of logic in the early twelfth century and a follower of Aristotle, Abelard was concerned with the nature and identity of individual things and universals. Constant Mews explains that:

Abelard’s major theme is that all predicables are physical utterances of human imposition. Genus and species cannot be reduced to one very general being, as being (ens) is simply an ambiguous name, not a fixed category. A differentia is not a thing, but a word imposed to signify varying degrees of difference, whether making a species different from a genus or one individual of one species from another. When dealing with something that is whole (like a mortal, rational animal), these categories are words considered together, giving the reason why something is considered as a whole. A proprium [one’s own peculiar characteristic] is a word imposed to signify what is peculiar to one thing rather than another. 

Put into terms that relate to my earlier question concerning the identity of characters within a written text, Abelard’s theme can be used to say a person, who is alive, is a being. This being is unique and individual. All persons are classed as members of humankind. This means that all persons have a number of similar characteristics, which allow them to be classed within one classification. The identity of a person is his or her character. It is similar characteristics that allow all persons to be classified in the one group, but each person has an individual and recognizable character, which can be described by listing his or her characteristics. For example, Socrates is a man, with features in common with other men, but there is only one Socrates the philosopher. An individual’s characteristics include appearance, age, social background, temperament, personality, education, motivation, capabilities and tendencies.

Click here to read this article from Flinders University

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