(Blogging continues to be sparse because, although I just sent in a final draft of "The Delirium Brief", I'm hard at work on other projects—notably my 2018 space opera, "Ghost Engine", and my 2018 Merchant Princes universe novel, "Dark State"—and taking time off to attend a birthday party in Berlin.)
The trouble with writing fiction is that, as a famous novelist once said, reality is under no compulsion to make sense or be plausible. Those of us who make stuff up are constantly under threat of having our best fictional creations one-upped by the implausibility of real events. I'm pretty much resigned to this happening, especially with the Laundry Files stories: at least space opera and fantasy aren't as prone to being derailed as fiction set in the near-present.
But there's a subtle corollary to the impossibility of story-telling keeping up with reality, and that's the point that it is also pretty much impossible to invent protagonists who can keep up with reality.
Let's face it, most people lead lives which are, to all outward appearances, pretty boring. They're not boring if they're you, but major life milestones (graduation from school/university, your first job, your wedding day, birth of a child, death of a parent) can be encalsulated in a single parenthesized list because they're so ubiquitous that most of us have some experience of them. The hyperfocussed realism of much literary fiction is simply an introspective examination of the minutest details of such ordinary lives, and while a good writer can make the ubiquitous or the mundane somehow spellbinding, those of us who are used to the spicier diet of genre fiction tend to need some additional seasoning. For example: take the embarrassing family dinner where the nest-flown kids return to introduce their significant others to the generation gapped parents. Many or most of us have lived through that experience, but it's if you try to put it in a work of SF and run it for a chapter or two you will lose most of your readers—starting with your editor—unless you reach for the hot sauce. (For example: throw in all four of the youngsters having separate coming-out experiences over the dinner table, with a parental meltdown for light relief. Been there, did that in "The Nightmare Stacks").
Generally genre readers prefer, if not two-fisted action heroes, then at least people whose lives are less uninteresting than their (our) own. So we try to invent interesting protagonists, people thrust outside our own comfort zone who nevertheless are equipped to deal with the slings and arrows and ancient curses of a different reality.
But reality is always going to one-up you because it's under no requirement to make sense.
Let us take, for example, a fellow called Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln (Wikipedia biography here), who was (variously) a Jewish, Presbyterian, Buddhist, spy, British MP, Nazi, propagandist, and would-be Balkan oil cartel mogul. Oh, I forgot to mention: claimed reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and Japanese-backed candidate for the Emperor of China. (Not bad for a poor shtetl boy who started out as a Hungarian orthodox Jewish yeshiva student.) Nothing about this man makes any sense whatsoever unless he's a character from a movie script written by Thomas Pynchon for Woody Allen.
Ignatius was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Paks in Hungary in 1879, but after a brief student career as an actor (with a side-line in petty theft) he fled Hungary for London, fell in with Lutheran missionaries, and converted to Christianity. He joined a seminary, got in trouble, and was sent to Canada to evangelize the Jews of Montreal. Whereupon he decided Anglicanism was more to his taste, had a falling out with the mission, and decamped for Britain. Talking himself into a position as a curate in the Church of England he contrived to get himself elected to Parliament briefly in 1910. (He was unseated at a second general election later the same year.) He was less lucky in business but somehow managed to combine being a British MP with attempting to establish a monopoly on the Balkan oil fields. The outbreak of war saw him back in London and, when the British rejected his services as a spy, he promptly made contact with the Germans, who had no problem employing him as a double agent ... somewhat unwisely, as this all became material for his kiss-and-tell book Revelations of an International Spy, published in New York in 1916.
No. Just no. Not making this up.
High points of what happened after he was released from his prison sentence for fraud in Parkhurst Prison after the war? Well, his supernatural charisma failed him at one point: Adolf Hitler was not terribly impressed when they met in 1920. even though Trebitsch-Lincoln reputedly saved Hitler's life in the wake of the failed Kapp Putsch (whose Minister for Information Trebitsch-Lincoln briefly was, making him the only former British MP to serve in a German government). Drifting from one right-wing rabidly anti-semitic group to another (and serially betraying them to the highest bidder) he finally ran out of friends in Europe and fled east. In China he initially worked as an arms smuggler for various warlords before converting to Buddhism, rising to the rank of abbot, and establishing his own monastery, where initiates were required to hand over all their possessions to the abbot (who spent his spare time seducing nuns). He seems to have contracted a strong hatred for the British government along the way, which possibly motivated his transfer of allegiance to the Japanese empire in China ... or perhaps this was simply a diplomatic move intended to secure Japanese and Nazi backing for his bid to take over Tibet by proclaiming himself Dalai Lama. (Himmler was apparently an enthusiast.)
Circumstances surrounding his death in Shanghai in 1943 are unclear, but he is known to have written a letter to Hitler protesting the holocaust; the response—a Nazi diplomatic request that the Japanese authorities poison him—probably led to his death due to "stomach trouble".
We can't know for sure at this remove, but Trebitsch-Lincoln certainly displayed all three of the dark triad personality traits. The records don't suggest that he was physically violent (although his relationships with women were exploitative at best and almost certainly psychologically abusive), but he had an alarming ability to talk himself into anyone's good books. If the Kapp putsch had been successful he might well have gone on to be a sort of proto-Goebbels for an early Fascist post-war regime. If he'd been slightly more successful in obtaining backing from the Gestapo in the far east he might have had the necessary backing to proclaim himself Emperor of China.
And if he'd survived past 1945 I am absolutely certain that Ian Fleming would have drafted him in as the role model for a Bond villain.
This was going to be a bumper-pack of implausible larger-than-life characters from history, but I sort of overran my target. If you want some homework, though, you could do a lot worse than read up on Julie d'Aubigny, Mademoiselle La Maupin (1673-1707), cross-dressing swordswoman, opera diva, lethal duelist and seducer of nuns (and briefly mistress of Maximillian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria).
As wikipedia notes, dead-pan, "due to Mademoiselle de Maupin's beautiful voice, her acting skill, and her androgynous appearance, she became quite popular with the audience, although her relationship with her fellow actors and actresses was sometimes tempestuous ... Her Paris career was interrupted around 1695, when she kissed a young woman at a society ball and was challenged to duels by three different noblemen. She beat them all, but fell afoul of the king's law that forbade duels in Paris" (so she fled to Brussels and waited for the fuss to die down while having an affair with a foreign head of state).
Or, as Badass of the Week puts it, "Julie D'Aubigny was a 17th-century bisexual French opera singer and fencing master who killed or wounded at least ten men in life-or-death duels, performed nightly shows on the biggest and most highly-respected opera stage in the world, and once took the Holy Orders just so that she could sneak into a convent and bang a nun. If nothing in that sentence at least marginally interests you, I have no idea why you're visiting this website." Nothing particularly unusual here: just another 17th century bisexual Annie Lennox clone and opera star with a side-line in sword-fighting.
Two serious points for any fiction writer emerge from this meditation on eccentricity.
Firstly, any accurate depiction of mundane real-world life has to take into account the fact that reality contains multitudes, including outrageously and larger-than-life figures like La Maupin and Trebitsch-Lincoln. You can write hyperrealistic literary character studies of protagonists who are utterly barkingly implausible except insofar as they are based on real people; or you can write escapist genre fantasies about utterly plausible normal people thrust outside their comfort zone (a vampire! Except he just happens to be a low-level banking IT dogsbody turned civil servant). What you can't do is one-up reality, because reality has a bottomless magic wallet full of colourful surreal excess.
Secondly, if one wishes to add spice to a work of escapist SF or fantasy, sometimes we can do better by looting the historical archives than by trying to roll our own characters. La Maupin would work perfectly as a foil for the protagonist of a secondary world fantasy yarn (set in I-can't-believe-it's-not 17th century France, with added magic), or perhaps even as the protagonist herself. Trebitsch-Lincoln is of course the Bond Villain Who Got Away (because Ian Fleming forgot to write about him), a Bizzaro-world hybrid of Doctor No and Ernst Stavro Blofeld (and, on reflection, it's possible that Fleming did know of him; it has been several decades since I read the original novel of "You Only Live Twice", but Trebitsch-Lincoln's eastern self-reinvention may well have informed Fleming's depiction of Blofeld in Japan). But if we employ characters like this, we have to dial back on the weirdness of the setting, lest the dish come out excessively spiced to the point of implausibility. Better, I think, to dump the protagonists of a literary novel out of their comfort zone in the deep end of a space opera, than to try to write La Maupin in orbit.
So: who are your favourite barkingly implausible historic characters—not currently alive, please, that would be tasteless—and how would you deploy them in fiction? (Be sure to leave not only a name but a link to some biographical colour, and to explain your fictional reasoning.)