Hero/Villain: The Trouble with Napoleon

About a year and a half ago I read an article in the WSJ about the bicentennial commemorative Battle of Waterloo to be held in 2015.  Two men were considered to be the finest Napoleons in the reenactment world, one American and one French (naturally).  That there should be two, and that they should be French and American — this just seemed too thematically rich for me to pass up!  I knew there was a fun-yet-poignant story here, but I wasn’t interested in telling the real tale of will happen (or what may have already happened: for all I know, one of them has come out on top).  I wanted to explore the possibilities of what could happen: what kinds of real passions might be stirred, and what Machiavellian moves might be made behind the scenes to make the mock history come to life?

Any resemblance to real characters is almost purely coincidental.

"Even I'm conflicted about my legacy."

“Even I’m conflicted about my legacy.”

Well, as far as the real, living Napoleonic players are concerned.  The representation of Napoleon the Emperor, the actual man, is a different matter.  I don’t want to screw up any of the history as far as it concerns my novel, but it isn’t the facts that worry me.  It’s how people interpret the facts.  In my research I’ve discovered that historians fall on one side of a very clear dividing line.  You either believe that Napoleon was flawed like any great historical figure, but is ultimately responsible for laying the foundations for modern Europe.  Or you believe that he was a monomaniacal tyrant bent on world domination at all costs — one of the costs being the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives lost during his campaigns.

Both sides have their points, and as soon as I feel pulled to one side of the argument, I’ll read someone’s opinion from the other side and be swayed that way. This isn’t a Coke or Pepsi kind of argument: either the man was a modernizing hero whose laws are still the foundation of French democracy today, or a mass murdering villain who led men to their deaths for no good reason whatsoever.  Reading historians’ opinions of Napoleon makes me feel like an onlooker at Caesar’s funeral as Brutus and Mark Anthony give their conflicting accounts of the man.  I suppose this is healthy for my book, which seeks neither to bury Napoleon nor to praise him.  Love him or hate him, it doesn’t change the fact that people are interested in him enough to dress up like him and lead mock battles — that’s what interests me.  And yet by aiming to write this novel and put it out in the world, I’m entering a horse into the race.

I’m a fairly non-confrontational person by nature.  I don’t really enjoy embroiling myself in heated debates, which is not to say that I don’t have my opinions, I just don’t like to fight.  That this novel could thrust me into the midst of a debate that has been going on for centuries really deterred me from writing it for awhile.  But the characters wouldn’t leave me alone.  For a year and a half they urged me to keep reading, keep taking notes, keep adding new characters into their midst.  And now, this November, I promised them that I would harness the energy of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) to get them out of my head, into the computer and finally onto paper.  It’s happening, and it has been a great joy this past week getting to watch them come to life.  I know now that I don’t have much of a choice in the matter anymore.

Which means I’m going to accept that the final product will be interpreted however it will be interpreted.  It will probably please some hardcore Napoleon lovers/haters, but not all.  It will explore both sides, and I’m guessing that for the extremists it won’t go far enough in either direction.  I’m choosing to be okay with that.

I’m wondering if anyone reading this has thoughts on the matter.  Have you written about a controversial character and felt conflicted about it?  Please chime in!


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