If someone lived long enough, they must have met some interesting historical figures, right? Famous names that anyone now would recognize. It just makes sense that it works that way, and it’s big fun to read those bits of alternative history in fiction. It’s even more fun to write them. Which is the only good reason to do it, because it’s definitely not realistic.
It really only makes sense if you don’t look too close or think too much about it. It turns out that many names we recognize as famous now were pretty far from that when they lived. In the novel Hounded, the first of the Iron Druid Chronicles, the main character–who has been around for 21 centuries–mentions knowing Van Gogh. But Van Gogh was virtually unknown during his life. He sold exactly one painting. Only later was his work noticed, and even later to become the widely-known name that he is. But okay, let’s say that his work became famous later because this long-lived character (strictly, he isn’t a true immortal) knew him, and somehow contrived that postmortem fame. So, there we go, still plausible. Though to be honest, I’m not sure that’s really how the author meant it (Kevin Hearne, if you’d like to correct me on this, I’d appreciate it).
So some examples could be explained away. Some others, not so much. The very worst demonstration of this I can think of is from the movie Hancock. Criticizing Hancock is like shooting fish in a barrel, there’s just so much to vilify there. But I’m talking about the bit right at the very end, when Jason Bateman quizzes Charlize Theron about various historical figures: Attila the Hun, Queen Elizabeth (without specifying which Queen Elizabeth, I’m assuming the dead one), and JFK. She personally knows EVERY PERSON WHO EVER EXISTED and she has opinions on all of them.
Now I know what you’re thinking: with everything that went wrong with Hancock, THAT is the thing you chose to pick at? Well, yeah, odds are good you didn’t even notice that particular flaw after the more glaring stuff that came before it, and the lame heart-moon thing after. Besides, it fits today’s subject.
I admit, that pieces of alternate history like this are really enjoyable when done well. In my own writing, I decided to go the other direction. My characters (like Hearne’s, they are not truly immortal) have spent centuries trying to remain hidden. While they’ve interacted and even interfered plenty, they aren’t given to hanging out at the top with big names. That, logically, would ruin anonymity. My fave depiction of this is a young man meeting someone who is more than seven centuries old (I know, that’s a little on the young side). He could ask about anything he wants. Coming back to their conversation later, they’re talking about football. It’s unfortunately realistic; I imagine that, on the spot, you’d quickly run out of questions, especially if you got a number of responses like, “No, I never met him,” or “I wasn’t there, I don’t know any more than a history text would.” Then the conversation would naturally turn to the sorts of things that any two people might talk about. (Though actually, I think someone who’s been in as high a number of wars and conflicts as that character might have a fascinating view of football, and I would totally jump at the chance to find out.)
All that said, I’d like to get some more historical figure references as I continue through the Iron Druid Chronicles. I’m holding out hope that Hearne will fall into the doing-it-right category.