Monday, July 22, 2019

When Your Chief Protagonist is *Really Famous*

I love coming-of-age stories, especially about people you know will go on to do amazing things.

Yet authors of historical fiction usually avoid making a famous person the chief protagonist. It’s likely to tick off readers if your vision doesn’t match theirs, especially if you go into the character’s head.

In my case, however, it’s precisely Alexander’s fame that led me to focus on him. He was enormously complex, the source of continued fascination throughout history, but everybody has a different Alexander. To some, he’s a hero, to others, he’s a monster. He’s also not really what one would expect in the man who’d go on to conquer most of his known world before he was 33: the fresh-faced kid with a “melting gaze” (so the ancient authors), who liked to present himself as a “philosopher in armor.” He’s a feisty bundle of contradictions.

But whatever people think about him, he seems larger than life.

Which is exactly why I wanted to write about him. I want to humanize him.

Alexander is the poster child for what happens when a famous father produces an even more famous son. We don’t hear about Philip of Macedon much today because Alexander sucked up all the air in the room. But when he was a boy, nobody knew what he’d become. He grew up in the fishbowl of palace life, son of “the greatest of the kings of Europe” (so Diodorus, an ancient author). What must that have been like? Supposedly, he used to complain to his friends that his father wasn’t leaving anything for him to accomplish. Even in his teen years, he had a hunger for glory. Today, we prefer our heroes humble, but the Greeks didn’t.

It’s easy to assume he was a golden boy from the very beginning, he did everything early and easily—got it all right on the first try. Or one might prefer the contrary camp that claims he was lucky and Not All That.

Neither of those play for me. The truth is, I think, in the middle. He made mistakes, did stupid stuff—not just politically, but militarily, despite his reputation as a military genius. The measure of success isn’t making no mistakes, but learning to recover from them quickly, which he did. And it’s that guy I want to explore in my fiction, not the larger-than-life hero.

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