A reader wrote the other day:
I have an opportunity to develop a work of fiction that has a basis in fact. One of the primary characters is a long-dead United States president. Do you have any advice or can you recommend any guidelines for fictionalizing events and circumstances relative to such a figure? I have no idea what sort of leeway (if any) that I may have.
The short answer is that you have all the leeway you want to take.
The long answer, however, is a lot longer.
I'm going to take a particular writer of historical fiction, one you've probably never heard of. But in the late 1950s and 1960s, David Stacton was a widely read, respectfully reviewed author. He was also astoundingly prolific. After starting with detective and soft-porn novels under pseudonyms, Stacton switched to historical fiction unlike anything people had read before. Just off the top of my head, I can think of a number of titles:
On a Balcony (about the Pharaoh Ikhnaton)
The Judges of the Secret Court (about John Wilkes Booth's assassination of Lincoln)
Segaki (medieval Japan)
Tom Fool (about Wendell Wilkie's run against FDR in the 1940 presidential campaign)
People of the Book (about the Hundred Years' War)
A Signal Victory (a Spanish renegade fights with the Maya against the conquistadors)
A Dancer in Darkness (a retelling of the Duchess of Malfi tale)
Sir William; or, A Lesson in Love (Admiral Nelson and Lady Hamilton)
And on and on. Stacton wrote in a witty and philosophical style, a bit detached from his characters, but with a knack for oddly persuasive details (Gonzalo Guerrero, the renegade, has his lower lip pierced to hold a jade labret; when the labret's out, he enjoys running his tongue in and out of the hole as an aid to thought).
I mention Stacton because almost all his novels had historical figures as either the protagonists or important characters in his stories. But while Gonzalo Guerrero certainly existed, we know very little about him. Stacton could therefore develop his character any way he chose. We know a lot more about Wendell Willkie, but Stacton invites us into Willkie's mind, where the character becomes very different from the "real" Willkie.
In other words, Stacton was using the sketchy outlines of historical figures as a way to dramatize his own points, his own view of the world. This can lead to the sin of "presentism"—judging our ancestors by our own moral and political standards—but Stacton avoided that. His characters are living in their own present, by values that make sense to them. We may look at them ironically because we know more about them than they know about themselves. But we can see that in Stacton's view, we're equally ironic.
Every historical novel is a kind of thought experiment: If we look at someone living in the 17th century, or ancient Egypt, does their experience of life contrast with ours? Do they grapple with the same questions? Do they plead their cases before the judges of the secret court, as Stacton says we all do?
To do this, we may sometimes have to play fast and loose with historical facts: Maybe we need to put our hero in a different location from where historians say he was on a given date. Or we need to give him a more plausible motivation for his actions. (Real people are the only ones allowed to do crazy, unmotivated things.)
That's OK, as long as you're not totally twisting historic fact—and even that's OK if you're writing alternate history, with FDR and Stalin fighting an alien invasion in the 1940s.
But the point I'm finally making is that you are using your characters, not the other way around. If you're thinking of writing about a former US president, he has to dramatize your vision of the world—both as it is now and as it was in his time. You may use lots of historical factoids, but they're really just window-dressing. The key question for you is this: How do I make this person in history provide "anecdotal evidence" for my view of the world?
I can't mention Stacton without telling you more about him. He died in 1968, reportedly of a stroke, while doing research in Denmark for another novel. (More likely it was a covered-up murder by a homosexual prostitute.) He was 42, and I still recall the shock I felt at hearing of his death. Two or three magazines provided obituaries, and then he disappeared. It's hard to find his books even in good second-hand bookstores.
As a historical character himself, then, David Stacton offers an ironic model for writers of historical fiction: As perceptive as he was, as elegant a writer as he was, he nevertheless vanished from our literary history. He left no disciples; as I found out the hard way, his style was inimitable.
But I can offer this small consolation: A few of us do remember David Stacton and the impact of his fiction, and I gather that a small publisher plans to bring some of his novels back into print. I look forward to their appearance, and I'll let you know when they're published.