A Tale of Two Abes: The Importance of Using Historical Figures In their Prime in Fiction

Pop quiz time! Read these titles of movies too awesome to actually exist:

King Arthur vs Godzilla

Napoleon Bonaparte vs A Really Big Alligator

George Washington vs Dinosaurs

Teddy Roosevelt vs Bigfoot (Oh, wait: This actually exists!)

Amelia Earhart vs Killer Crabs

Jimmy Carter vs Killer Robots from Neptune

When you read each of those sentences, how did you imagine these famous people? Probably how they’re best remembered in pop culture, such as Napoleon in his field gear and bicorn hat, Washington in his presidential outfit, and Amelia Earhart in a flight jacket.

Now, read these next two sentences:

Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

When you imagined Mr. Lincoln in these movies, you probably visualized him in his 50’s while wearing his presidential outfit and famous top hat, correct? Anyone would, as these style of stories rely on using historical people when they’re at their most famous. However, trying to subvert the formula can lead to disappointment from our audiences.

If you were like me back in 2012, you probably heard of ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,’ a big screen adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel of the same name, and were very curious to see how such a silly premise would work.

If you were like me, you were probably disappointed to find that most of the movie didn’t feature Abe fighting off vampires in the White House, or on the battlefields of the Civil War for an hour and a half, but instead got an overly-serious film that followed Abe as a young adult learning his axe-chopping trade. While we do get a spectacular climax where President Lincoln does fight vampires on a train, by that point it’s too little, too late.

Disappointed at how such a silly idea turned into a big disappointment, I sought solace in The Asylum’s mockbuster, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.’

While the film’s storyline, effects, and acting are… not A grade material (save Bill Oberst Jr.’s performance as Mr. Lincoln), and the budget is only 1/1,000th the size of its big-screen counterpart, the one virtue that cannot be denied is that ‘Zombies’ gives the audience what we came to see: President Lincoln fighting the undead from beginning to end (save a brief prologue where little-kid Abe has to kill his undead mother).

As another example, if we were going to write a story about, say, Jesus defending Earth from invaders from Mars, audiences would expect to see Jesus in his 30’s, with his classic robe, sandals, long hair, beard, and mustache. They would want to see classic Jesus hopping into a UFO to blast off into outer space, not teenage Jesus or child Jesus.

As a final example, imagine that you’ve seen a trailer for a movie where every single US president, living or dead, teams up to save the world when Hell invades Earth, featuring a spectacular climax where Obama, Lincoln, Coolidge, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Fillmore, Nixon, and every other president shoot millions of machine gun rounds into Satan’s face. Sounds awesome, right? That’s what audiences would want to see. They wouldn’t want to see the presidents when they were kids or young adults: They would want to see them as they were in office.

The takeaway from all this? When using historical people in fiction, use them when they were at the peak of their fame and influence. Avoid following them as a child, a young adult, or any other age when they hadn’t accomplished their greatest feats (though Presidental Babies would be an… interesting way of bringing all the US’ presidents together). If you want some awesome examples of this, check out this gentleman’s Deviantart page for US presidents in action-packed, ‘What if?’ scenarios.

What’s your charachter’s bedroom like?

When it comes to fleshing out characters, there are countless exercises to try: What does your character want? What’s their outlook on life? Their favorite foods? The one thing they’d change in their life if they could go back in time, and the like. But there’s one exercise that, in my opinion, is much more fun:

What is your character’s bedroom like?

This question was born after browsing an article on Wookipedia (the fan-run wiki for the Star Wars franchise), which covers – of all things – pajamas. While short (consisting of just one line), it features a picture of Count Dooku – the tyrannical Sith lord from Attack of the Clones – wearing a simple set of grey pajamas.

At first glance, there’s nothing too exciting about this. What’s so extraordinary about Count Dooku wearing pajamas? Nothing, really, except the mental image of an evil Sith lord, one hellbent on conquering the galaxy, enslaving billions, and ruling with an iron fist, wearing pajamas to bed is hilarious. Does he also have a Sith teddy bear to sleep with? A Sith nightlight that glows red to keep the nightmares at bay? (Or encourage them?) Curious, I looked around to see if Dooku happened to have a bedroom, and it turns out that he does, one that’s glimpsed in the Clone Wars cartoon series.

All of this was fascinating to me; Star Wars, being a franchise about two factions battling it out for the control of a galaxy, rarely has the time to delve into the sleeping habits and personal quarters of its characters. And it was then that I realized that exploring a character’s bedroom is a unique way to get to know them. If a bedroom is a sanctuary that the occupant can decorate however they wish, then it stands that such decorations can give us an insight into what a character is like:

*A sorcerer, wizard, or other magical type, wanting a break from their studies, fills their room with video game consoles and puts anti-sound magic in the walls so he can play as loud as he likes, while also casting spells to repel evil forces who may try to sneak up on him while he’s relaxing.

*A monk doesn’t decorate his room (so as to encourage not having attachments), but does have a luxurious bed, both as his one indulgence in life and to ensure that he can get the best night’s sleep he can so he can help his community with a refreshed mind and body.

*The emperor of a planet fills his bedroom not with gold, jeweled statues, or other expensive trinkets, but with photos of his family, his children’s crayon drawings, and other personal treasures to remind him that he’s doing his job to ensure his family – and other families everywhere – can live in peace and safety.

*A serial killer purposefully decorates her room to be warm and inviting, so as to put victims at ease when she lures them in. Knowing that the police may come by at one point or another, she never saves any mementos of her kills.

While these details may never appear in a story, they can shed light on what a character is like when he/she/it is relaxing and not out saving the world, solving crimes, or otherwise involving themselves in the conflict of a story. While we may rightfully assume that the bedroom is only used for sleep and sex, I think exploring how a character uses it – for both recreation and sleep – can help us gain more insights into how they think, and see a side of them we’d otherwise never consider.

Fun Fact: Those Count Dooku pajamas? You can equip them in the video game, ‘Star Wars: Battlefront 2’ and have Dooku run around the battlefields of the galaxy in his sleepwear.