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.


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


Reflections on Writing Historical Fiction with Ben Kane

Ben Kane was born in Kenya and moved to Ireland when he was 7. With a veterinarian for a father and a love of animals, Ben did the logical thing and became a vet. All his life he’s been an avid fan of military and historical fiction. In 1998 he set out to travel the world for three years. It was during this time that he first had thoughts of writing military historical fiction. As Ben tells it: “What started as a hobby soon became an obsession, and about four years later The Forgotten Legion emerged into the light.” His latest novel is LionHeart.

Is there a particular time period you concentrate on? If so, why? If you’ve switched time periods, why?

My first thirteen novels were set in ancient times. I have long wanted set books in other time periods, however, because my interest in history is not confined to Rome and its enemies. When my publisher offered me the opportunity to write a non-Roman novel, I seized it with both hands. Why Richard the Lionheart? Because he has fascinated me since childhood, and because there aren’t that many books out there about him.

Why historical fiction? Why not contemporary stories?

History is my one true love; I have adored it since childhood. While I have toyed with the idea of writing contemporary stories (and may yet do that too), history is what really lights my fire – all time periods!

What are you passionate about in terms of historical fiction?

See above! In short, everything. Getting it right regarding how people lived, spoke, behaved, ate, drank, fought, died. Filling the pages with tiny brush-stroked detail so that the reader is transported to the time and place that the book is set in.

How do you choose the stories you tell?

With one eye on the story and the other on the market. I wish I could just write novels about whatever takes my fancy, but my book sales keep a roof over my head, and feed my kids. (I am, fortunately, a fulltime author.) I could write the best-written work about the pottery making people who lived in southern India in the fifth century BC, but no one would buy it. The title and subject have to appeal to the reader.

How has your writing style changed over time?

It has improved immeasurably – I am so much better at writing than I was ten, twelve years ago.

What would you do differently if you could start again?

I would re-write my first three novels knowing what I know now, and edit thousands of overwritten sentences. Things like, ‘he shouted loudly’ really grate with me now!

What are you working on now?

I am in the finishing stages of Crusade, which is the sequel to Lionheart. It’s been a blast to write – so many contemporary accounts of Richard’s crusade have made my job pure joy.

What advice do you have for new authors?

For the vast majority of us, it takes years of writing to hone your craft well enough to publish. Do not assume that because you have finished a novel that it is ready for publication. Set it aside for a month or two when you have ‘finished’ it, and then go back and re-read the whole thing. You will see it through different eyes, and your edit then will be worth a dozen of the ones that went before. PAY for a professional editor to edit the book before you publish – and make sure they are high-quality. Only then should you consider publishing. Never give up!

Many thanks, Ben. You can read another blog post featuring Ben Kane here

Lionheart by Ben Kane ~~ 1179. Henry II’s Norman conquerors have swept through England, Wales – and now Ireland.

Irish nobleman Ferdia has been imprisoned in Wales to ensure the good behaviour of his rebellious father. But during a skirmish on a neighbouring castle, Ferdia saves the life of the man who would become one of the most legendary warriors to have ever lived: Richard Plantagenet. The Lionheart.

Taken as Richard’s squire, Ferdia crosses the Narrow Sea to resist the rebellious nobles in Aquitaine, besieging castles and fighting bloody battles with brutal frequency.

But treachery and betrayal lurk around every corner. Infuriated by his younger brother Richard’s growing reputation, Henry rebels. And Ferdia learns that the biggest threat to Richard’s life may not be a foreign army – but Richard’s own family . . .

Available on The Book Depository and on Amazon.


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

Reflections on Writing Historical Fiction – Margaret George

Today, Margaret George reflects on over 35 years of writing historical fiction and looks back on how the industry used to work …

In 1986, my first novel, The Autobiography of Henry VIII, was published by St. Martin’s Press. Hope Dellon, the woman who later became a legendary editor, was just starting out, as was I.  In those days there were no ‘marketing committees’ at a publishing house; the editor had the freedom to act on his/her own judgment and hunches.  Ms.Dellon bought Henry VIII because she liked it, not because anyone thought it would be huge success.  Its success came as a surprise to all of us. At the time I was just grateful that it saw its way into print.  I did not have any expectations for it—but it ended up on the bestseller list of the London Sunday Times for several weeks.  I think, because of my name, they didn’t realize I was an American telling their British history story!

There were no MFA’s at the time (although there were always a few renowned writing programs, like the Iowa Writers’s Workshop) no ‘writers support groups’, no alpha and beta readers.  There were agents, of course.  At the time the prescribed course to publication was “first you write magazine short stories” and then an agent might take you on.  Those were the days of flourishing magazines—Redbook, Mademosielle, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Saturday Evening Post—that featured short stories every month.

But short stories were not my natural type of story telling, and so my first novel was a 936 page whopper.  Also, back then, such large books were not at all unusual.  The Thorn Birds, Lord of the Rings, Exodus, and many others, including James Michener, were quite long.  This was all before cable TV and the internet.  People spent more time reading.  In fact our only entertainment was either network TV, movies in the theater, and books.

Since then I’ve written biographical novels on six other historical characters:  Mary Queen of Scots, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, Helen of Troy, Elizabeth I, and Nero, all of them still in print.  These are straight life stories, birth to after death, with my goal of never going against a known fact.  So they exist in the twilight zone between fiction and non fiction, and were often included on university reading lists for history. Today this format is considered old fashioned and people like dual timeline stories or mixed genre stories, like mystery/historical, thriller/historical. Reading fashions evolve!

My other goal, though, was to bring these people back to life.  I was recently in the National Portrait Gallery in London, passing through rooms hung with paintings of people who have exited the stage of life.  It was rather overwhelming, being in the presence of so many people who are no more, but once were. If I looked into their eyes, they seemed so alive, so ready to talk to me. The words of the 1708 Isaac Watts hymn,

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

came to me in all its sadness.  It seemed so unfair that they were silenced forever.  Only through art can they live again, and that is what a movie or play or historical novel can do.

In order to write such a novel, though, I had to immerse myself in the time, the place, and the facts.  So I have never had a research assistant, because only if those facts are already in my own head can I use them in a scene as I come to it.  Sometimes the times and the people I was writing about seemed more real than what was around me.  I am sure other writers have had this experience.  I especially feel that connecting with objects the person owned or saw or handled has a way of bringing their ghosts back.  So going to the places where they lived or visited is very helpful.  The challenge is that many may not exist anymore, or if they do, have been spiffed up and turned into tourist attractions, e.g, the Tower of London.  You really cannot experience that in the full light of day with swarming tourists; you have to be there at night when they have left.

I don’t have any test readers beyond a couple of friends, but my true alpha and beta readers are my subjects.  I have to ask myself:  would Henry VIII be satisfied that I have portrayed him truly? How does he feel about what is in the book?  I feel he is looking over my shoulder, either nodding or shaking his head.

Richard Matheson’s novel Bid Time Return, filmed as Somewhere in Time, portrayed a writer who willed himself back in time, and it captures very well the longing to go there, the process of getting there, and the shock of returning to your own time. This is a recurring cycle in the life of a historical novelist.

As for other projects at present, I had written a children’s book about tortoises, called Lucille Lost, in 2006, with a co-author.  I am currently working with my 10 year old granddaughter on another children’s book called The Quest of the Platypus.  I am also attempting to write two one-act plays about Nero for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer and am finding that play writing is a whole different world than novel writing.  And for the next novel, I am thinking of one that would be the biography, not of a person, but of a historic house in Washington DC that was there from the beginning of our nation’s capitol.  This would be a bit of a departure but writers evolve, too, and we all like new artistic challenges.

I am so grateful for the years I have had the privilege of writing about such pivotal characters in time, and being able to share them with readers.

Margaret and I met in 2014 at the London Historical Novel Society meeting. One evening, with our husbands in tow, we shared a wonderful dinner and became friends. Many thanks, Margaret, for sharing your experience on A Writer of History.

I’ve read four of Margaret’s novels. Her story telling is superb, her characters live and breathe through the pages, and the history of the time is vividly portrayed.


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