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


Building a Character Sketch

David Fitz-Gerald, author of Wanders Far, has created a character sketch using a technique I outlined in an earlier post. It’s fascinating to see how another writer has worked with the idea.

As I was completing my book, Wanders Far-An Unlikely Hero’s Journey, a certain blog post caught my eye. It was an entry titled “Building a Fictional Character”. I found it right here, on A Writer of History.

That post introduced me to a woman named Grace Hansen, the main character from M.K. Tod’s book, Time and Regret. Even though I had finished my book, I followed the model suggested by the post and made a character sketch for the protagonist in my story. I wish I had done that before writing a book. Next time I write a book, I’ll know enough to do that. After reading M.K. Tod’s fantastic book, it occurs to me I could learn a few more lessons by studying her technique and paying attention to the good advice featured on her blog. You can be sure I will be checking back often.

I’d like to share my character sketch with you today, so you can see how I applied the model. First, it might help if I provided a little bit of context.

Wanders Far is the title character of a book about the life of a member of the Bear Clan of the Mohawk tribe. He was born on a path between villages at a time of transformation. He was raised along a tributary of New York State’s Mohawk River, hundreds of years before colonists arrived. He spent each summer in the Adirondack mountains, with his family, gathering resources to sustain his people through the winter. His passion was distance-hiking and Wanders Far hoped to serve his people as a runner, carrying important messages between the villages of his people. During an epic, five-hundred-mile foot race he met a powerful shaman who became his mentor. With the help of his guide, Wanders Far discovered his true calling and ended up playing a pivotal role in one of history’s most amazing stories: the legendary unification of the five tribes of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, also known as the People of the Longhouse.

So, here’s my attempt at following M.K. Tod’s recipe for how to cook up a character:

Name:His birth name is Fast; as a toddler, he is renamed Wanders Far; that name stays with him into adulthood

Family:Wanders Far has a close relationship with his mother, Bear Fat who is named for the important resource which they spend their summers hunting; his father, Big Canoe excels at bear hunting, building longhouses, and of course, building canoes; Wanders Far is the youngest of eight children; his three oldest siblings are sisters, named Corn, Bean, and Squash after the three crops that sustain their people; sister Squash is prominent in the story and has a unique understanding of what makes Wanders Far special; three brothers named Fisher, Chipmunk, and Dandelion follow the three sisters in birth order; brother Dandelion and Wanders Far share a close bond; a sister named Blackberry is the seventh child; Wanders Far’s maternal grandmother, Gentle Breeze is also a prominent character in the book, and she lives in the compartment across the aisle from Wanders Far in their family’s longhouse

Relationships:Wanders Far develops a very close emotional, and spiritual connection with an old traveling shaman; a trader from the distant Narragansett tribe becomes a good friend; An Algonquin captive named Blue Arrow becomes like another brother to Wanders Far

Height, weight, and build:Wanders Far is small for his age throughout most of the book; he reaches a slightly above average height at maturity near the end of the book; his father, Big Canoe is the tallest man in the tribe; Wanders Far has a slender build and eats sparingly; his grandmother often urges him to eat more; he is strong and has great endurance, but to others he appears wiry, and his limbs look spindly until he is full-grown

Eyes, and hair:He has brown eyes, and brown hair; as a child, his hair is worn long; when he reaches maturity the hairs on his head are plucked out, one by one, until all that remains is a top-knot, which is the typical style for men in his tribe

Physical peculiarities, distinguishing features, habits, and/or mannerisms:Aside from being smaller than others his age, Wanders Far doesn’t look different from other children; he tends to avoid large crowds and gatherings; he is introverted; sometimes he gets a far-away look on his face, as he daydreams; he has a photographic memory

Clothing:Like other children he is naked most of the time; as he reaches maturity, he wears a loincloth and sometimes leggings, which is typical of boys and men in his tribe; he travels light and carries as little as possible; possessions, including clothing, are not that important to Wanders Far; he never gives much thought to what he is wearing, however he makes a few minor requests when it comes to his headdress; he finds a talisman which he wears on his chest

Voice:Wanders Far is more of a listener than a talker; he communicates comfortably with his family; he communicates well with adults when they initiate conversation; he is not a dynamic speaker; during the course of the book he learns to become a better storyteller, by necessity

Core need:Wanderlust; he is compelled to move; he can’t stay still very long; “no village can contain him”

Vital secret:During his childhood and adolescence, Wanders Far keeps most of his dreams and visions to himself; he would rather not tell people about his visions, preferring to believe he will serve his people as a messenger instead of as a seer

Transformational significant event/(s): Wanders Far’s spirit manages to leave his body and enter an eagle flying over Chimney Bluffs, a magnificent geographical formation on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, near present-day Sodus, New York; he enjoys the soaring feeling of freedom a bit too much; he is thrilled by the excitement of the eagle’s dangerous flight when it suddenly plunges toward the ground and snatches a rabbit in its talons

Wants, needs, desires, motivation, and ambition:Wanders Far is a distance hiker; he would rather be moving than sitting, standing, or staying put; he is happiest when his feet are on the trail; he would love to be able to stretch his arms and soar above the tree-tops; he enjoys being alone with his thoughts; from a young age he wants nothing more than to be a messenger

Strongest character traits:Endurance; perseverance; determination; loyalty; spirituality; and positivity

Weakest character traits:As an introvert, telling stories and delivering important messages to large gatherings of important people is challenging for Wanders Far

Education:A powerful wandering shaman appears in Wanders Far’s life just in time to guide him when he needs it most; another spiritual guide also has an impact on him later in the story

Religion:He has a deep spiritual connection to certain people in his tribe; he and his people often refer to the Great Spirit; he is one of those rare people who can recall glimmers of previous lives and who has visions of events that will occur in the future

What does the character do when alone:Wanders Far spends lots of time along the trail, alone with his thoughts; his daydreams and visions manifest within his consciousness as he hikes

Will readers like or dislike the character and why:Readers should like Wanders Far because of his closeness to other likable characters in the book; Wanders Far is kind; people should identify with the enormous challenges he faces and root for him as he seeks to find his way

Romance:The girl of his dreams remains beyond his reach; when it seems like they will come together, events seem to separate them; this character sketch will refrain from revealing whether the hero gets the girl

Epiphany:During two grueling physical challenges, Wanders Far comes to understand the claim Spirit will make on his destiny; he will have to choose between two very different paths

Conflicts:The Great Spirit has a higher calling for Wanders Far than Wanders Far bargains for; Wanders Far is confused—he is not sure he wants to be a seer, healer, or leader; a malevolent presence tempts Wanders Far; Wanders Far must choose whether to serve his people and his maker; the woman of his dreams sends him on a difficult mission to win her hand in marriage; an evil leader terrorizes his own people, including Wanders Far’s friends and family

I am very grateful and wish to express my deep appreciation to M.K. Tod for having me here at A Writer of History, and to Historical Fiction Virtual Blog Tours as well. It was a pleasure sharing information about my book and its hero with you today. A character sketch is at least one thing Wanders Far, and Grace Hansen have in common. At last.

Many thanks, David. I’m so pleased this particular writing tool was helpful to your work. I think I need to get busy with a few new character sketches of my own!

Wanders Far by David Fitz-Gerald ~~ Wanders Far lived in dangerous times and was faced with one difficult challenge after another. He was a skinny, quiet boy who was raised on the banks of a tributary of New York State’s Mohawk River, hundreds of years before colonists arrived. One lifetime was not enough for Wanders Far’s old soul.

From a very young age, his wanderlust compelled him down one path after another. No village could contain him. He was happy living a simple life in the physical world during challenging times. The spirit world had other plans. A wise, enigmatic shaman mentored Wanders Far and helped him cultivate the supernatural visions that haunted him. His guide could only help him so far.

He set out to become a runner, carrying important messages across the lands of his people and their enemies. He ended up fulfilling a much greater destiny than he ever imagined.


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

Building a fictional character

I’m hosting over at American Historical Novels this week – an opportunity to meet new readers and share a few aspects of my writing. An article I’m posting over there today is about building a character.

What does it take to create a character in a novel?With fictional characters, I feel it’s important to flesh them out to some extent in advance. For Grace Hansen, one of two main characters in Time and Regret, I borrowed a template from Elizabeth George, a well-known mystery writer. Below are some of the details:

Name: Grace Hansen Age: 42 Height: 5’ 6

Weight/Build: put on weight during marriage; because of divorce is back to her pre-marriage weight, relatively slim, a bit curvy in hips and breasts

Color hair/eyes: brunette, brown eyes

Physical peculiarities: blushes easily

Family: Grace is an only child; born in New York City; her mother Lily fell apart when her husband died in a plane crash so Grace was raised by her grandparents; Lily now suffers from Alzheimer’s; father David died when Grace was 5; grandmother, Cynthia Devlin (nee Gibson), whom Grace calls Grandmama; the two were often at odds when Grace was growing up; Cynthia is British born and grew up poor; she’s proper, a social climber, and likes the things money can buy; grandfather, Martin Devlin, Grace calls him Grandpa, profoundly affected by WWI, built a successful gallery, Grace has a very close relationship with him

Sexuality: fairly routine in her sex life with her husband Jim; only one other sexual relationship before marriage; now divorced, she’s ready to be more adventurous

Significant event that molded her character: loss of her parents and subsequent upbringing by her grandparents

Ambition: she has taken the safe path all her life, married relatively young, has two children, a well paying job, and what she thought was a good marriage until the night her husband asked for a divorce while out at their favourite restaurant; she has been self-sufficient and successful; but is now restless and unfulfilled, alone and lonely; feels the need to reinvent herself

Core need: to be loved for who she is

Wants: solve the mystery she discovered in her grandfather’s papers; learn how to live without Jim, her ex

When under stress: retreats into reserve and aloofness when under emotional stress

Gestures when talking: uses her hands and body a lot when talking; ex-husband used to tease that she must have Italian blood

Strongest character trait: dependability; puts needs of others ahead of her own

Weakest character trait: allows others to dominate, doesn’t assert herself

Philosophy: strength comes from adversity, nurture family and friends, enjoy small pleasures of life, be self-sufficient

What others notice first about her: warm, open demeanour; shapely legs

Educational background: despite her grandfather’s preference to have her work at the gallery he owned, she studied business at university and works for an insurance company; she’s been around art all her life

I create character sketches like this for all my significant characters and look at them frequently. I consider them a skeleton for what will ultimately become a flesh-an-blood character. Not surprisingly, the details evolve as I build the novel, but they’re always there to provide a reference for me as the chapters unfold.

You can find American Historical Novels either on Facebook or Goodreads


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