Such characters may be invented relatives, friends or servants of important historical figures, allowing them to know many central characters, be present at important events and act as a narrator (they "just happen" to be in the right place at the right time) and often even become involved in said events to the extent of being instrumental in historical occurrences.
Ranulfism is named after Sharon Penman's invented character Ranulf, an imagined illegitimate son of Henry I of England
Ranulf first appears in "When Christ and His Saints Slept" as a small boy, a much younger half-sibling of the Empress Matilda/Maude.
He proceeds to become involved in nearly every major event in this book and its sequels, even to the detriment (in terms of "air-time") of such characters as Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine!
Ranulf's life manages to be intertwined with Penman's other preoccupation throughout her works - Wales. Even where Wales is highly peripheral to the main action of the story, somehow the writer manages to include it - and making the invented Ranulf half-Welsh, and having him end up with a Welsh woman (his cousin...who also happens to be blind..) ensures its place at the centre of the story, though it is ostensibly meant to be about the royal family of England.
Possible reasons for use of the Ranulfistic device
The attraction of the Ranulfistic character appears to be twofold
* An indulgence on the part of the historical novelist: he is constrained by the known facts about real historical characters, regardless of how much flexibility he has within the novel, but with an entirely invented character the novelist can "play God" and create whatever story he wishes for the character.
* A device by which a "common man" can narrate important historical events, showing emotions such as the reader might feel himself in the same situation e.g. surprise, anger, fear.
Nevertheless, while the above points may make the creation of a Ranulfistic character attractive to a historical novelist, it does have severe drawbacks:
Possible Dangers of Ranulfism
We know that the "Ranulf" never existed, therefore he never interacted with the historical characters in the story, and never participated in the events being described.
To suggest that he did is wholly inaccurate, and means that the writer is not making an honest attempt (to the best of his ability) to describe the events as they may have happened. He is instead wilfully creating a "false" character and inserting him into the heart of real events. Consequently, the reader can be absolutely sure that the historical events did not transpire precisely as the writer is describing them.
Writers such as Sharon Penman often include an "author's note" at the end of a book to discuss the liberties they have taken with history in order to produce a workable novel. This section would include details of any characters who are entirely fictional.
However, by this stage, the reader has finished an entire book that purports to have a historical basis, thinking that (for example) Henry I really did have a son called Ranulf, and that he was involved in all of these key events.
If the reader does not pay attention to, or forgets about, the author's note, he has now acquired a jaundiced and inaccurate view of the history depicted in the book. This is not a desirable outcome.
As mentioned previously, the Ranulfistic character is an indulgence on the part of the writer. He can have this individual do anything he wishes, and involve him in any event he chooses.
Nonetheless, the fact that the "Ranulf" of the piece CAN be involved in every story, and CAN be acquainted with, admired and loved by every central character, does not mean that they SHOULD be.
It is not believable that a very central character in a historical story, beloved by everyone, is not real - because then you are not telling the story as it happened. A very important and significant person changes events, or the tone of events, by their existence.
For example, if the Empress Matilda had a favoured younger brother called Ranulf, she might have behaved differently in certain situations. She did not. Therefore, having such a significant invented character changes the story and drives it further away from the real historical story that could have been woven together from known events, known traits of the historical figures etc.
This indulgence on the part of the writer can consequently have a very serious impact on the value of a historical novel.
The writer is partly abdicating from the real responsibility of historical fiction i.e. breathing life into REAL historical characters and dramatising the facts of their lives by weaving said facts with "best guesses" / imaginations of what their lives must have been like, why they did the things they did etc.
In many cases historical fact is far more interesting than fiction. Ranulfism can therefore be highly disappointing to readers who are interested in reading about real characters and events, as where the Ranulfistic character is the focus of the story, the writer is deviating from real history and is "tampering" with real historical characters insofar as they relate to the "Ranulf".
These individuals (who may be based on names that survive in the historical record) have invented lives that place them at the heart of the most significant events in Rome during the period being described. Titus Pullo, rather than Caesar, is even put forward as the true father of Cleopatra's son Caesarion, while Lucius Verenus is painted as a confidante of, and witness to the last days of, Mark Anthony.
It is not believable that two such invented soldiers would become so central to such important events, but this is a device used by the writers to put characters over whom they have full control at the centre of events, and to tell the story through their eyes.