I’ve talked about using history as inspiration for worldbuilding. Now let’s move on to characters. A few weeks back, I ran across a review of a biography of Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and immediately thought “he would make a good model for a tragic villain.” I often have thoughts like that when reading history.
There’s a lot of interesting information about Yamamoto’s life–for example, he was adopted into the Yamamoto family as an adult, part of a traditional practice whereby a samurai family with no sons would adopt a promising young man to carry on the family name. But to Americans like myself, Yamamoto is best known for his role in planning the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
Yamamoto was actually a political opponent of the rising militarism in Japan and believed that a lengthy war with the United States could not be won. However, when ordered to plan the attack, he did his duty and tried to prepare an attack that would give Japan the best possible chance of winning its foolish war in short order. Yamamoto hoped to knock out the U.S. Pacific fleet in a single sudden blow, to clear the waters for Japan to achieve its war aims in Asia before the Americans could recover enough to respond. But as luck would have it, the U.S. aircraft carriers were away from the harbor on maneuvers and escaped destruction even as the rest of the fleet suffered major damage.In response, Yamamoto worked on a plan to lure the American carriers into another decisive battle, where they could be destroyed with overwhelming force. The bait would be a Japanese attack on the isolated but strategically important island of Midway. But fortune spurned Yamamoto once again, as the Americans had cracked the Japanese codes and knew the details of his “trap.” This allowed them to maneuver their outnumbered forces into the ideal position to counterattack. The Battle of Midway thus became a devastating defeat for Japan, rather than the U.S.
Worst of all, the Japanese did not realize that their codes had been broken. They thought that a spate of unsecured radio chatter between their two carrier groups had tipped the Americans off, when in fact the exchange had gone unheard.
It was this code breaking that would lead to Yamamoto’s death. While touring Japanese positions in the Pacific, Yamamoto’s plane was ambushed by sixteen American long-range fighters, who overwhelmed his six escorts and shot him down. U.S. commanders had decrypted the Admiral’s itinerary and were revenge-crazed enough to risk exposing their code breaking operation in order to kill him. Once again, however, the Japanese failed to realize their codes had been cracked, buying the planted cover story that Yamamoto’s transport plane had been spotted by the local resistance, who had then called in the fighters.
Yamamoto’s eerily prophetic warnings against war with the U.S. are often what catches the most attention and sympathy from American audiences, so he ends up coming across a lot like this:
Given his political differences with the militarists, I also see parallels between Yamamoto and another brilliant military commander, the Byzantine General Belisarius. In the mid-500s CE, the Emperor Justinian ordered Belisarius to retake the Western Roman Empire from the Goths. The gifted general was able to recapture a large portion of the former western empire, including Rome itself, despite being repeatedly starved of supplies by Justinian, who feared Belisarius’ growing popularity. These suspicions ultimately led to the general being recalled to the capitol. It’s possibly that the entire mission to the west had been concocted as an “impossible” task meant to embarrass Belisarius. A popular–but false–legend claimed that the jealous Justinian ordered Belisarius to be blinded, leaving the fabled general to wander as a penniless beggar.
From these details, one could craft an original character:
A patriotic military leader with the wisdom to realize that the course his leaders will take could doom the nation, but duty-bound to carry out his task to the best of his ability. A brilliant commander whose plans are foiled by events beyond his control, including actions by the protagonists and sabotage by his political enemies. Someone who the protagonists and their allies view as their greatest enemy, despite being their strongest sympathizer. Someone who could survive an assassination attempt, understand its significance, and try to bring that information to his leaders, only to be punished and disgraced instead. Leaving him penniless, friendless, and open-eared to an entreaty from the protagonists–if they can get to him before another assassin does.
That’s the sort of process I go through when drawing on historical models for characters. You take elements from their background, add a dash of groundless anecdotes, mix in your creativity, simmer for ten minutes, and presto! A solid character that makes use of your historical inspiration without being a slavish copy of it.