Q&A: Mixing Historical Fact & Fiction

Q: I’m writing a medieval love story full of intrigue, and the people I’m writing about actually did exist in the 15th century. But the story I am writing about those real people is a product of my fantasy. Now I’m wondering if my screenplay has a chance if it’s not a factual biography, or if some of the events never really happened. Would I be better off sticking to the facts, or choosing people whose life details are well known?

A: In the case of your current project, no one knows anything about anyone from the 15th Century — except maybe Columbus, and most of what we’re taught about him isn’t true. So it doesn’t matter if the people really lived or not. Even if you use a real person as a character, you can fabricate whatever you wish about him. Just be certain that the BACKDROP for the story is accurate – that it gives us a sense of life in those times. Real people can be mentioned (like queens and popes), but they don’t need to be your main characters if you don’t want.

But a much bigger concern should be the commerciality of such a story. Will any production company or financier be interested in a story with this setting? Based on the films released in the last few years, it’s hard to imagine that a 15th century period piece set in England is going to start a bidding war.

Had you said you were writing a novel, or romance fiction, these issues wouldn’t matter. There is a proven market for period love stories in print. Hollywood’s interest in such stories is a lot smaller.

As I’ve said repeatedly, you want to write a story you’re passionate about, but if your goal is become a professional screenwriter, you MUST consider the commercial potential of whatever scripts you write.