Living Breathing Characters

Jessica McCann is a novelist who has also worked as a professional writer for magazines, universities, corporations and other organizations. Earlier novels – All Different Kinds of Free and Peculiar Savage Beauty – have featured stories about pre-civil-war America and the 1930s dustbowl. Jessica’s new novel, Bitter Thaw looks at discrimination, racism, and sexism through the eye of three characters, mother, son and granddaughter.

In today’s post, Jessica looks at techniques for creating authentic characters.


Historians write about dead people. Historical novelists write to bring those people back to life.  Novelists breathe life into history by putting important events into context, transporting the reader to another time and place, and telling stories of how historic events impacted the lives of ordinary people. 

Stories. They’re important. They’re engrained in our DNA. Author Madeleine L’Engle once said, “Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.” That’s the author’s goal. But how does one write a story that accomplishes it all? By infusing the story with authenticity.

Every element of a historical novel must feel authentic to the reader – not just the description of setting and accuracy of historical elements, but of all the people who lived in that time, as well. Fictional characters should feel like real people to the reader. They should reflect humanity. A novel with no diversity misleads. A cast of stereotypical people offends. A story packed with one-dimensional characters falls flat.

How does a writer create living, breathing characters? It begin with three simple steps:

1) Reading about people. 

2) Talking with people. 

3) Observing people. 

Reading about People

Memoirs are especially helpful. Unlike other nonfiction genres, they offer the reader a uniquely personal experience and perspective. They’re authored by people with autism, PTSD, multiple sclerosis, addiction, abusive parents, [fill in the blank]… By the parent, sibling, child, or spouse of a person with [fill in the blank]. By someone who grew up poor, or rich, or famous, or in a small town, or in a big city, or… You get the idea. 

Reading multiple perspectives will help you as a writer (and a human being) to understand what other people are thinking, feeling, and grappling with. The mistakes they’ve made. The obstacles they’ve overcome. What they’ve learned from those experiences. 

When you read a memoir, you get inside the author’s head. And when you’re in her head, you can see the world through her eyes. (Click here to read my author blog post “Recommended Reads: 12 Memoirs)

Talking with and Observing People

This is where my background as a journalist has strengthened my fiction writing. I learned early in my transition to novelist that most rules and skills of writing are universal – it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, or any variation of either one. Being a skilled interviewer and keen observer translates nicely into profiling multi-dimensional, authentic real people (as well as fictional characters).

Documentaries and podcasts are great tools to study conversation and body language, and to hone your interviewing skills. As you watch or listen, pay attention to how the documentarian or podcast host asks questions. What does the interviewee say in response? What doesn’t she say? What does her body language tell you? All this will help you craft dialogue that rings true for the reader. 

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is another fabulous resource. It details 130 emotions – from adoration to worry – and the range of body cues, internal thoughts, and visceral responses that go along with them. The book also includes helpful tips on how (and how much) to incorporate such detail into your story.

Many thanks, Jessica. Love these three steps. I’ve put the Emotion Thesaurus on my Christmas list! Jessica’s historical novels have won the Freedom in Fiction Prize and Arizona Book of the Year, as well as being shortlisted for numerous literary awards, including the international Rubery Book Award. You can find Jessica online: on her website, or @JMcCannWriter (Twitter/XInstagramTikTok),  and @jessicamccannnovels (Facebookand YouTube).

Bitter Thaw by Jessica McCann

Minnesota, 1956: Unknown human remains are discovered deep within the mosaic of rugged forests and interconnected waterways once home to the native Ojibwe people.

More than 30 years later, fresh news of the cold case reopens old wounds for an Arizona family, from a time when gender stereotypes, racial bigotry, and small-town gossip led to tragedy. Now, three generations – a mother, son, and granddaughter – embark on a cross-country journey in a search for truth and a hope of redemption.

As long-buried secrets are unearthed, they each begin to question their memories, motives, and basic notions of good and evil.


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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About the Author

Meet M.K.Tod

Meet M.K.Tod

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

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