Here is what I mean: when writing about famous historical characters, many authors, instead of writing directly about those characters and giving us an insight into their thoughts, motivations, desires and weaknesses – in short, instead of making them human – give us an observer’s POV. That is, they create a fictional (and often weak) character, whose only role is being present there to give us a peek on what Alexander the Great/Caligula/Napoleon were doing.
Example: last week I read a novel based on the events in the Book of Esther. If I were the author, I’d write directly from Queen Esther’s point of view, tell the readers how she felt about having to hide the fact that she’s Jewish, how she feared for the fate of her people, how she missed the home she was forcibly taken from. Instead, what I got is a story written entirely from the POV of some servant who gives us her observations about how “The Queen looked sad when she was taken to the King”. And some rather weak dialogues between the MC and Queen Esther. What a waste.
Or there’s Meadowland, by Thomas Holt. He takes these fantastic characters like Erik the Red, Leif Erikson, Freydis Eriksdottir, and instead of digging straight into their minds, he gives us the POV of some two old geezers nobody cares for.
In part, I can understand why it’s easier to work this way. When you’re writing about someone really famous, almost mythical, it can be intimidating to try and make them fully human. But in my opinion, it is a challenge that, if properly executed, makes for a really, really good read. It can make the difference between a mediocre historical fiction novel, and a really good one. Take for example Merlin’s character in Mary Stewart’s novels. We get Merlin’s direct POV, which I think is fabulous. Having the story told from the POV of Merlin’s servant would weaken and dilute the experience, IMHO.