Saccharine Saints: Is it defamation to “add to” a Bible character?

One of the challenges of writing Biblical fiction is that, in order to make sure that people mentioned in the Bible don’t come across as “saccharine saints.”

Even though the protagonist of my biblical historical fiction book, A Conspiracy of Breath, could be identified solely from the Bible as Pristine Priscilla, I portrayed her with very human characteristics:  envy, stubbornness, depression, and even anger.

I recently read an interesting article about the legal implications of writing about actual people. (Do you know what constitutes defamation? According to this article, you should!)

Of course, Priscilla isn’t around to counter any way I portrayed her.

Here is an excerpt from A Conspiracy of Breath. What are your thoughts on this?

“But I have some good news. James, the Lord’s brother, will be there.”

I had heard of this man, whose vows to not cut his hair left him with dreadlocks that touched the floor (his tribute, he said, to his late cousin the Baptist.) A man who had once accused the Christos of moon-sickness, of lunacy. I yearned to meet this man of such history and will.

“I’m listening,” I said after a while.

“And I have heard that he is writing a letter, a general letter, to all believers.” Aquila knew how to coax me.


“And that he has done this under the direction of what you would call the Holy Breath. He has described this, this Holy Breath.”

I leaned forward, hardly able to contain myself. Aquila requisitioned the words he had heard.

“He says it is like the carrying-away of Ezekiel.”

I knew that feeling.

“And you say he is collecting what he is told, what he hears and knows, to write in a letter?” I stumbled over my own words.

Cordelia and I looked to the corner where a pale earthenware jug held my scrolls, its opening plugged with burlap.

“Yes,” he said.

“Just like me.”

Aquila looked away.

My anger reeled like a drunkard, off balance and unreasonable.

“Oh, have you begun to doubt me, Aquila?”

His eyes widened and he shook his head slowly but did not speak. Cordelia hurried from the room.

I felt tears corrupting my vision.

“I saw how you looked at me, in the valley, and then with Peter, when the Breath came to me.” I was sobbing.

He reached for me but I pulled away.

“Peter didn’t believe me, and you don’t either.”

“I do believe you.”

I could not stop sobbing. I was afraid others would hear, so I tried to quiet myself but choked out syllables without words.

“I do believe you.” Aquila’s voice sued.

I felt the draining-out feeling again. I gathered all my strength to speak. “Peter didn’t want to hear that a woman could have the Holy Breath.”

Aquila took the spasms of my shoulders in his hands and straightened me up to look at my face. For some reason, I thought of how the Holy Breath would have cupped the shoulder blades of Jesus and pushed him into the desert temptation.

Aquila’s words were deliberate, his eyes on mine.

“No, Priscilla. Peter didn’t want to hear that a Gentile could have the Holy Breath.”

Priska Front Cover Amazon

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