The Relatable Protagonist

How does one make a driven, downright ambitious, female protagonist relatable to present day readers? Tessa Arlen is the author of two series – the Lady Montfort mystery series and the Woman of WWII mystery series. She’s also written two standalone historical novels: IN ROYAL SERVICE TO THE QUEEN and her latest, A DRESS OF VIOLET TAFFETA which releases today.


How does one make a driven, downright ambitious, female protagonist relatable to present day readers without her coming across as egotistical and self-absorbed? Particularly a woman who had to fight against convention to succeed at a time when women played a secondary role in history. 

It is the women who rise above their lot that fascinate us, that teach us that we too can overcome the obstacles of our time. But as writers of historical fiction, it is often difficult for us to understand the formality and rigidity that existed in a culture a hundred years, or more, ago—let alone understand what courage it took to break rules that don’t exist for us now.

Let me just say, right now, that I acknowledge wholeheartedly that women still must fight to overcome a huge imbalance of opportunity in our culture!

Lucy Duff Gordon

I first came across the protagonist of my latest historical novel, A DRESS OF VIOLET TAFFETA, Lucy Duff Gordon (née Wallace) the creative force behind the fashion label, Lucile Ltd., when I was researching Edwardian history for my Lady Montfort mystery series. She was referred to as ruthlessly ambitious, a social climber, and after the Titanic disaster “The woman who refused to go back to help the survivors after the ship went down.”  Not a very sympathetic sounding character, I know, but her story was fascinating. This was a woman who opened iconic fashion houses in London, New York, and Paris in the late 1890s and early 1900s when Parisian men dominated the fashion world; she was one of the first haute couture houses to show her new season’s models in a real-life mannequin parade; and she was at the forefront of releasing women from their whalebone corsetry and into underclothes that ‘allowed’ a softer more female outline. But the Titanic episode was more than unfortunate—so I concentrated instead on my Edwardian mystery series.

Then I went to an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London of the clothes Lucy designed in the very early 1900s under her label Lucile Ltd.

One of Lucy’s designs

I was spellbound by their delicate detail, the daring combination of colors, and the bewitching simplicity of line and style. How could an arrogant, overbearing woman have created such subtle, vibrant beauty? 

Her shimmering collection of gowns and dresses created well over 120 years ago lit up an otherwise dull February afternoon. Now I wanted to write Lucy’s story! So, I used her lovely, elegant, original clothes to represent who she really was—after all they came from inside her head. 

Where the creator of Lucile Ltd. was described as ‘cold and arrogant,’ I made my Lucy naturally reserved, often unsure of herself in society, and as her dressmaking business gained notice and popularity so did her confidence. I turned ‘ruthlessly ambitious’ into a single mother driven by the need to support her five-year-old daughter—or lose her to be raised by a respectable spinster aunt. The social climber who ‘married up’ and became Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, was pursued by a baronet who fell in love with her energy, her forthright honesty, and her singular independence, until she finally agreed to marry him. 

I made Lucy mine completely. After all no one is ever simply one thing: a one note song.

When we write fiction about a real life individual, we must be as painstakingly accurate with their chronological history as we possibly can, but this leaves us quite free to make our protagonist come alive. If our characters are multi-dimensional: their dreams and strengths, flaws and fears will transcend history and live for our readers.

Here are some elements that I try to keep in mind when I am creating my historical real-life characters.

  1. Understand your character’s world. Read about the period they lived in: listen to the music of the time, read the literature, the novels and plays. Feel your way into their life.
  2. When you have done that forget it (all that historical fact is still there—you just want to avoid doing an information dump). Now make your protagonist entirely yours—no matter how she/he is portrayed in history invest her with life. 
  3. Do not allow time and place to stand in the way of human frailty. Shakespeare surely taught us that human emotions do not change, even if social convention and manners do.  
  4. Invest your characters with the driving need to break the rules and give them the endurance to withstand the ups and downs of their journey.
  5. I sometimes add a fictional character: a friend, sibling, or even an enemy to bring an outsider’s perspective to your protagonist’s character and journey.
  6. Take risks with your character’s predicament and remember that the many real things that happened to them may sound outlandish or unbelievable to us in the 21st century: fact is often far more intriguing than anything we could possibly imagine.

Strong women characters who broke the societal rules of their time are not always sympathetic, but if we concentrate on what they achieved for the good or because they believed it was important to at least try for what they wanted, then we can find ways to make them into the real heroines they deserve to be.

What excellent advice, Tessa. Many thanks for adding your voice to A Writer of History.

A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen ~~ A sumptuous novel based on the fascinating true story of La Belle Époque icon Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, who shattered the boundaries of fashion with her magnificently sensual and enchantingly unique designs.

Lucy Duff Gordon knows she is talented. She sees color, light, and texture in ways few people can begin to imagine. But is the male dominated world of haute couture, who would use her art for their own gain, ready for her?

When she is deserted by her wealthy husband, Lucy is left penniless with an aging mother and her five-year-old daughter to support. Desperate to survive, Lucy turns to her one true talent to make a living. As a little girl, the dresses she made for her dolls were the envy of her group of playmates. Now, she uses her creative designs and her remarkable eye for color to take her place in the fashion world—failure is not an option. 
Then, on a frigid night in 1912, Lucy’s life changes once more, when she becomes one of 706 people to survive the sinking of the Titanic. She could never have imagined the effects the disaster would have on her fashion label Lucile, her marriage to her second husband, and her legacy. But no matter what life throws at her, Lucy will live on as a trailblazing and innovative fashion icon, never letting go of what she worked so hard to earn. This is her story.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, 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

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Meet M.K.Tod

Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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4 Responses

  1. Excellent, Tessa! I appreciate how you showed the character’s inner lack of confidence through her choices, shaping her outer behaviors.

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