While reading Elizabeth Lev’s biography of Caterina Sforza The Tigress of Forli, I realized that I was just as interested in the quieter aspects of Sforza’s life as the big dramatic events and aspects of her personality that she is (in)famous for. As a result, I suddenly felt like both female and male characters in many fantasy novels were one-dimensional in comparison. Clearly, a biography does things that a novel can’t — it’s a more comprehensive narrative that doesn’t require a tight plot. And yet, Lev does provide some fascinating through lines.
The key narrative of Caterina Sforza’s life was her struggle to keep possession of lands in Romagna (that came to her via marriage to her first husband Girolam Riario and after his death, to her son) when the Pope, the large neighboring Italian city states, and the lesser nobility of Romagna all wanted pieces (or all) of the Riario domain. The stories about this are fascinating. The Caterina Sforza wikipedia page does a decent job of covering the basics. Sforza’s wit and guile and bravery (and, yes, beauty) are legendary. Just one example: after the death of Pope Sixtus, as Rome fell into chaos, a pregnant Caterina left her ransacked residence to occupy the Castel Sant’Angelo on behalf of her husband with the hopes of influencing the conclave that would select the next pope. But politics wasn’t her only obsession. She was an avid hunter and knew how to fight with a sword. She was a religious women, who later in life would spend periods of time in a convent. She was also keenly interested in growing herbs and making medicinal preparations with them as well as combining them with other substances to create cosmetics. And, of course, art (including interior decoration) and reading and correspondence via letter were all things she regularly engaged in.
In fiction, characters are often one or two things. And oftentimes the second thing is not all that unique or interesting. Caterina Sforza was a politician, hunter, rider, herbalist, alchemist, mother, wife, widow, lover, correspondent, interior decorator, fashion plate, warrior, religious zealot and philanthropist. She was hated by many, admired by many and loved by a few. There are obviously differences between real lives lived and fictional characters on the page, but after reading about Caterina Sforza, your standard fantasy character, especially your standard female character in epic fantasy, seems slight in comparison. The solution isn’t to write a Caterina Sforza (although I’m sure that’s already been done), but rather to think about the characters we write as more than just plot functions or character types.
Lev’s book isn’t perfect, although I can’t judge as a biography because it’s a period of history that I am not well-acquainted with. For all I know, it may be a little too on the side of the subject, but Caterina Riario Sforza deserves the sympathetic treatment, especially considering her accomplishments and how she was depicted by some of her contemporaries (particularly Machiavelli) and those who followed their lead. Even so, there were moments where you felt Lev stretching to get inside Sforza’s head or to include a piece of research. And even though it’s a popular history, it also would have been nice to have more of Sforza’s actual words (from letters) included in the text. We get very little of that. And yet what we do get is more than enough for me to declare The Tigress of Forli as essential reading for writers.