Character in Historical Fiction – a deeper dive

We’ve had two posts about character in historical fiction: The Character-Driven Story (a contribution from Mary F. Burns) and Character – the historical fiction variety. Today, I’m going to further explore character – one of the seven elements of historical fiction – using author Elizabeth George’s character prompt sheet.

In Write Away, Elizabeth George provides the topics she covers in her prompt sheet. A caveat here based on comments received: I’m not advocating this particular prompt sheet, nor am I advocating planning your characters in advance like Elizabeth does. I’m more seat-of-the-pants in terms of my characters. What I am trying to illustrate is the aspects authors can explore to add authenticity to HF characters.

 

It seems to me that many items on Elizabeth’s prompt sheet offer the opportunity for a writer to bring a historical perspective.

Name – what names were popular in the middle ages or the early twentieth century? Of course, location is also a factor.

Height/Weight/Build – these could reflect nutrition of the time as well as social norms. Curviness in a woman might be considered highly attractive in some time periods, so a thin woman might feel unattractive.

Educational background – what were the prevailing norms for education in the historical period of the time? Were girls educated? Were boys expected to leave school at a young age to help support the family? Was an educated woman considered unattractive? Dangerous? Who taught the children? Were boys sent away to school? Were working class children uneducated? Were religious institutions involved in education? Were activists calling for public education?

Sexuality – no doubt there are books written about this! Or PhD theses. Sexual norms could have a critical impact on a character’s behaviour, so it’s important to understand what they were and then choose how they affected your character.

Family – family size, family structure, sibling relationships, family values and expectations all have a historical element. These can feature in a character’s back story, motivations, damaging incidents and so on.

Core need – the single need at the core of who a character is. “We’re born with them and during our lifetimes, we mold most of our behaviour to meet our core need. This is something essential to a person, an automatic striving within him that, when denied, results in whatever constitutes his psychopathology.” — Write Away by Elizabeth George

Some core needs are universal and irrespective of time period. The need to be loved, for example, or the need for a father’s approval. The desire for competence. Others may be influenced by time period or historical events shaping a particular era.

Ambition in life – clearly this needs to reflect historical times rather than modern day times. And similarly take into account a character’s station in life. An 18th century woman would not yearn to be CEO of a major corporation. It’s unlikely that a 12th century peasant would yearn to command an army.

Gait – at first I thought that the way a character walks would not be influenced by history. But what about a geisha? Or the young Queen Victoria who was disciplined to walk in a composed, stately manner even as a child?

Laughs or jeers at – while some of these choices for characters can be universal, others would reflect the historical time period. Men during Oliver Cromwell’s time would laugh at different things or people than men of the early twentieth century.

Philosophy – we can think of this as the guiding principles a character lives by. It defines who we are and what we stand for. One’s philosophy often reflects upbringing, religion, societal values and these, in turn, reflect the times.

All of these and more help transport readers in time and place. In a subsequent post, I’ll look at the rest of the prompt sheet plus some additional items to consider.

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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 www.mktod.com.

 

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