Character – the historical fiction variety

Today I’m tackling character, the second deep dive into the 7 elements of historical fiction. I’ve spent a while musing on the topic, wondering where to begin. Ultimately I’ve gone back to some of the books I have on writing to capture a broad understanding of the role of character in storytelling. I hope this will set the stage.

From Steven King’s On Writing:

book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages. This happens, I think, when readers recognize the people in a book, their behaviors, their surroundings, and their talk.

Straight away, King identifies a challenge for writers of historical fiction: how to help readers understand their characters behaviors, surrounding and talk.

In Write Away, Elizabeth George says that “story is character and not just idea“. She adds:

Put a human face on a disaster and you touch people more deeply … we continue reading a novel largely because we care what happens to the characters … an event alone cannot hold a story together. Nor can a series of events. Only characters effecting events and events affecting characters can do that.

Characters are interesting in their conflict, their misery, their unhappiness, and their confusion.

Another significant premise Elizabeth George explores is “if character is story, then dialogue is character.” More about dialogue another time.

Elizabeth George uses a character prompt sheet to develop her unique and complex characters. I’ll work with that in another post to provide some guidance for developing historical characters.

In Write Like the Masters, William Cane draws lessons from well-known authors such as Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, and Margaret Mitchell. According to Cane, Dickens pits “major characters against each other in both physical, verbal and mental antagonism.” As for Melville, Cane says he uses four literary devices to characterize: complexity, as in conflicting characteristics, unreliability, in that we hear about a protagonist from different sources, selection, as in focusing on only a few main traits, and mystery, which Cane describes as things that are unknown or unknowable.

About William Faulkner Cane writes:

William Faulkner created some of the most three-dimensional and well-rounded characters in modern fiction … not what his characters are doing now but who they are, where they came from, what they did, and why they might do strange and unexpected things in the future.

One feature of Margaret Mitchell that Cane brings out is that “the viewpoint of the heroine is the chief filter used to see the world of Gone With the Wind.” Mitchell “filters what happens through the mind of her protagonist and by doing so ensures the readers are in close connection with her heroine throughout the story.” She makes extensive use of interior monologue and intense emotion to drive the story.

These ideas – and likely others – will help us discover more about character in historical fiction.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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11 Responses

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Roberta. I’ve just had a conversation with my agent on building emotional engagement with my characters – the key to a novel’s success.

  1. Hi Mary, am loving this series you’ve started! When I set out to write my historical mystery series, it was a deliberate decision to “downplay” the actual mystery/murder and emphasize the characters who were involved in solving it (John Singer Sargent and Violet Paget aka Vernon Lee), to the point that the murderer wasn’t so much a “secret” to be discovered, as a force to be reckoned with, and one that revealed the character/personality/values/thoughts/responses of the two amateur sleuths, more than engaging the reader in solving an intricate murder mystery. That said, as I have now written four books in the series, while still emphasizing the characters as they change and grow over time, I find that I am also making the ‘mystery’ part more complex.

    1. Many thanks for this, Mary. If you’d like to say more about how you have focused on the character aspect of your series, I would welcome a guest post as part of the focus on the 7 elements of historical fiction. All best …

      1. Wow, yes I would love that! I can put some thoughts together this weekend and get it to you for your review by Monday, will that work? Thanks so much!

  2. Mary, thanks for a great post.
    I’m a devoted reader of character-driven narratives so it stands to reason that in my own hist.fict novels, the narrative would be driven by the characters in them and not solely by historical events happening around them. Just as Elizabeth George says. The success then, lies in creating a believable mindset in one’s characters that sits in harmony with the times about which one writes, doesn’t it?
    And speaking for myself, that’s hard – to completely exclude my 21st century thinking and make it all about 12th century thinking.

    1. Thanks, Prue. Glad you enjoyed the post. I can appreciate how difficult it must be to transition to 12th century thinking. I’ve kept my historical fiction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – there’s still a gap in thinking but not quite as huge a leap! All best … enjoying your FB posts.

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