Portraying Women in Historical Fiction – part 3

Well, part 2 of this topic generated a lively and at times challenging discussion on the HNS Facebook page, so it’s with a little trepidation that I offer up part 3 of Portraying Women in Historical Fiction. As someone pointed out, many of the tips apply to both male and female characters. What Gina and I did in our talk was feature how they applied to women in particular.

Today, let’s consider plot, world building and theme.

Plotting is what characters do to deal with the situations they are in and the conflicts they encounter along the way to achieving their goal(s). Plot is the events that provide a framework for the character’s or characters’ arcs. Like other elements of historical fiction, the plot has to make sense for the time period of your story and be shaped around or by the historical events taking place then.

The challenge with history is that so many of its events feature what men did in history. But what were the women doing?

Gina Buonaguro gave an example from her upcoming novel The Virgins of Venice that stemmed from Marin Sanudo’s diaries. Sanudo was a Venetian historian and diarist who diaries were published in 58 volumes. These diaries barely mentioned any women at all and none by name. So, what were the women doing? Gina decided to find out and create a story.

As Kristin Hannah said of her highly regarded novel, The Nightingale: “I found myself consumed with a single, haunting question, as relevant today as it was seventy years ago: When would I, as a wife and mother, risk my life—and more importantly, my child’s life– to save a stranger?” That question is at the very heart of The Nightingale. Hannah goes on to say: “In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. And sometimes, perhaps, we don’t want to know what we would do to survive.”

How does world-building enhance the portrayal of women in historical fiction?

Every novel builds a world for readers. To build that novel, you need to dig into the aspects listed in the slide above. It’s a long list! Pay attention to women as you research – their spaces, their spheres of influence, the changes and events that affected them – and then use the details sparingly. Investigate the work lives of women and beyond work, how they occupied their time. When you research politics, government, and major institutions, ask how these affected women and how they played a role. When investigating historical timelines and the major events taking place during your story’s time frame, consider how these events affected women along with where and how women had agency.

What about your novel’s themes?

Characters play out the themes of a novel. As author Lucille Turner said when writing about theme in historical fiction: “It is easy to say that theme is the central idea of the story, but in fact theme is not so much an idea as what the book has to say about an idea.” Lucille comments that the setting of Gone With the Wind (the Civil War) shapes the character of Scarlett O’Hara, making her the bearer of a message and a theme: to survive a civil war you must be ruthless and strong-willed; if you cannot change with the times, you will die with them.

Seven elements. Each one is a tool for you to use to portray women authentically and in a way that resonates with readers.

I’ll leave you with one other diagram – you know I love diagrams, don’t you? This one reflects readers’ views – over 2000 of them – on what makes characters come alive in historical fiction.

This is the list – I’ve highlighted those that stand out for me.

  • Realistic era behaviour
  • Dialogue evokes period
  • Time appropriate mindset
  • Era knowledge, attitude and morals
  • Understand world through their eyes
  • Dilemmas appropriate to the period
  • Learn about food, lives, clothing
  • Understand their decisions
  • Interesting and complex characters

Since history has been written mostly be men, finding female voices and sources requires creativity. In history, a woman’s agency was different from a man’s, and yet they were influential in their own spheres and their own lives as well as in subtle and indirect ways in the broader and more public spheres. Some stood out for heroic deeds or sweeping impact – Pope Joan, Catherine the Great, the Empress Dowager Cixi come to mind.

In closing, a reflection from Elizabeth Chadwick, author of many novels including a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine: “While writing The Summer Queen, I was constantly told that Alienor was a ‘woman ahead of her time.’ But my own take is that she was a woman of her time doing her best within the boundaries of what society would permit. Any attempt to go outside those boundaries was immediately and sometimes brutally quashed, but she was nothing if not resilient.”

I hope these three posts have been useful. You can find part one here and part two here.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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4 Responses

    1. You’re welcome, Pat. I’m delighted to do my small part for our historical fiction community 🙂 Maybe I should write a book based on all the material here on the blog!

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