Characters Stranger than Fiction by Maryka Biaggio

Maryka Biaggio is a psychology professor turned novelist who specializes in historical fiction based on real people. Maryka told me that she enjoys the challenge of starting with actual people and dramatizing their lives and motivations while recreating their emotional world through dialogue and action. With the release of her latest novel, The Point of Vanishing, she reflects on the characters she’s discovered whose lives are stranger than fiction. Over to you, Maryka!

Who hasn’t tossed out the adage “truth is stranger than fiction” after hearing some absurd but true tale? In fact, the saying has turned cliché from overuse. But when it comes to fiction writers, reanimating the lives of real people is a serious matter. And many readers find their interest especially piqued by novels based on actual persons. Could it be that we are compelled to compare ourselves to others, and, when those others are real people, that their tales are even more captivating? 

If we agree that one particular fascination stories hold for us is the means of measuring ourselves against others, it is not at all difficult to understand the attraction of stories based on real characters. Unbelievable as their motives may be, far-fetched as their actions and circumstances may seem, these people actually lived. Witness the popularity of a spate of novels based on real characters: The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her resilience in seeing her and her husband through their strange history; Ariel Lawhon’s I was Anastasia tells the fascinating story of Anna Anderson’s battle to be recognized as Anastasia Romanov; and The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is based on the true story of a young woman given ownership of another human being in the early 1800s.

I specialize in writing historical fiction based on real people. My own recently released novel, The Point of Vanishing, recounts the tale of the gifted writer Barbara Follett, who disappeared without a trace at age 25. My debut novel, Parlor Games, tells the tale of beautiful and cunning May Dugas, who conned her way from America to Shanghai, London, and points in between. I continue to be amazed by the number of readers who tell me that knowing May was a real person made the novel all the more fascinating.  And I expect those who are interested in Barbara Follett’s story will feel the same about The Point of Vanishing.

So I believe readers take a particular delight in the stories about real people. For if some real character could mastermind the most daring plot to separate a millionaire from his money, what adventures might be in store for any of us? If another could rise from poor beginnings and attain greatness, what might the meekest among us achieve? 

According to Italo Calvino, it all began with the first chronicler of the tribe: “The storyteller began to put forth words, not because he thought others might reply with other, predictable words, but . . . in order to extract an explanation of the world from the thread of every possible spoken narrative.” We humans are meaning-making machines, and it is stories that grease the gears of our turning minds. In its most basic form, story is about confronting life’s questions and quandaries. Writer E.A. Durden claims that “it is the job of fiction to portray the full spectrum of human possibility, to remind ourselves of everything we are capable of—from exploring the heavens to breaking out of the clink.” What better way to explore the possibilities than through actual lived experiences?

Of course, comparing ourselves to others doesn’t happen only in fiction, or even in such other narrative forms as biography or memoir—witness the popularity of polls, those ubiquitous instruments of public opinion and habit. And if there is any doubt about this need to compare, consider what happened when Alfred Kinsey released his highly technical and research-laden 1948 book “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.” Thinking this tome would be of interest only to the scientific community, W.P. Saunders printed just 5,000 copies. Against all expectations, this book so intrigued the public that the publishing house had to keep two presses rolling to meet the demand. Within fifteen weeks of its release, the 800-page volume had shot to near the top of the bestseller list. Of course, the fact that the topic was sexual behavior helped propel sales, but this doesn’t undermine the point. In fact, it confirms a variant—the more taboo or personal the content of the “story,” the more appeal it will hold for our story-hungry minds. 

I don’t expect the urge to compare ourselves to others, to take the measure of people who created their own success—or demise—will ever end. There will always be a demand for novels based on characters stranger than fiction. 

Congratulations on the release of your newest novel, Maryka. And thank you for sharing thoughts on the eagerness readers have for fiction based on true characters. I love novels based on real people and can’t wait to read your latest. Readers can also enjoy my conversation with Maryka about what makes historical fiction tick.

THE POINT OF VANISHING by Maryka Biaggio is based on the true story of author Barbara Follett. On a December night in 1939 Barbara Follett fought with her husband and stormed out of their Boston home never to be heard from again. Now novelist Maryka Biaggio provides a captivating account of Barbara’s enigmatic life—and disappearance.

Barbara had all the makings of promise and success. Early on, her parents recognized her shining intellect and schooled her at home. At age twelve, she published the novel The House Without Windows to much acclaim. When she was fourteen, her charming account of a sailing journey, The Voyage of the Norman D, was released. But when tragedy struck the family, Barbara floundered. Watch the trailer for more!

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, 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 www.mktod.com.

Character, a deeper dive Part 2

Whether your novel is set in World War II or Ancient Rome, historical events take on significance when we know the people involved with and affected by them. Tuesday’s post and this post are not about crafting compelling characters – I make no claim to being a master of the writing craft. Rather, these posts are my attempt to illustrate what’s different and unique about creating historical characters.

As one reader survey participant said:

What stands out for me in this comment: shared humanity, appropriate to their period, and resonates down the centuries.

Combine that with Elizabeth George’s comment about compelling characters.

My takeaway is that authors need to explore a character’s conflicts, miseries, unhappiness and confusion in ways that are true to their historical time period while still resonating with today’s readers.

How does an author reveal character? Through dialogue, events of the character’s past, through actions taken or not taken, through the opinions of others, through personality quirks and telling details. Even names can be revealing. Beyond these aspects, a character is what s/he wears, what they collection, what they read, the relationships they have, the possessions they collect or covet, how they spend their time and so on.

Furthermore, we can reveal character through what George calls the ‘external landscape of the person’ – looks, dress, home, vehicle, possessions, physicality. And through the ‘internal landscape of a person’: emotions, psyche, soul, wants, needs, reflections, speculations, obsessions, monologues,  strengths and weaknesses. Similarly, the voice of a character is shaped by their education, position in society, personal and family history, prejudices, biases, inclinations, desires, belief system, purpose, and goals.

To be historically believable, a character’s external and internal landscape as well as their voice have to reflect their time period.

Let’s return to Elizabeth George’s character prompt sheet – not because an author must have all these details sorted out before beginning to write, but in order to appreciate how history has a bearing on creating authentic characters.

Political leaning – what were the politics of the day? How would a character’s position in society reflect those politics? Would a character be at odds with his/her family’s prevailing political stance?

Hobbies – no point choosing tennis as a hobby, if tennis hadn’t yet been invented. Perhaps a 19th century man might take up photography because it was newly invented? If reading is a hobby, the character in question must have been in a position to be educated enough to read. And so on.

What s/he does when alone – long hikes in the woods might be a forbidden activity for a woman whose maid always attends her. Defying that code of behaviour reveals more about a character than it might in another station in life or another time period.

Significant event that molded the character – here is another opportunity to reflect the historical period. Did Pompeii erupt when your character was a small child? Was the character’s father killed when the Japanese invaded China in 1937? Did the character’s mother abandon him on the church doorstep during the Spanish flu?

Significant event that illustrates the character’s personality – this too is an ideal opportunity to reveal character and history.

What other details about a character can reflect the historical time period? A few suggestions:

  • the kind of person s/he strives to be
  • lies and pretences
  • career/job
  • where s/he grew up and where s/he lives now
  • social circle
  • style of clothing
  • grievances both general and specific
  • what s/he does when thwarted or treated unjustly
  • what s/he excels at, his/her accomplishments
  • perceived flaws
  • habits and quirks
  • secrets
  • fears
  • social, political, moral and philosophical issues the character feels are important
  • taste in books, music, art, theatre
  • possessions
  • leisure activities
  • sources of happiness

I’m sure you can add more to the list! I’ll leave you with one more quote:And if, as Hemingway said, we’re creating people, we have to bring to life the times during which they lived.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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.

 

Character – the historical fiction variety

Today I’m tackling character, the second deep dive into the 7 elements of historical fiction. I’ve spent a while musing on the topic, wondering where to begin. Ultimately I’ve gone back to some of the books I have on writing to capture a broad understanding of the role of character in storytelling. I hope this will set the stage.

From Steven King’s On Writing:

book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages. This happens, I think, when readers recognize the people in a book, their behaviors, their surroundings, and their talk.

Straight away, King identifies a challenge for writers of historical fiction: how to help readers understand their characters behaviors, surrounding and talk.

In Write Away, Elizabeth George says that “story is character and not just idea“. She adds:

Put a human face on a disaster and you touch people more deeply … we continue reading a novel largely because we care what happens to the characters … an event alone cannot hold a story together. Nor can a series of events. Only characters effecting events and events affecting characters can do that.

Characters are interesting in their conflict, their misery, their unhappiness, and their confusion.

Another significant premise Elizabeth George explores is “if character is story, then dialogue is character.” More about dialogue another time.

Elizabeth George uses a character prompt sheet to develop her unique and complex characters. I’ll work with that in another post to provide some guidance for developing historical characters.

In Write Like the Masters, William Cane draws lessons from well-known authors such as Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, and Margaret Mitchell. According to Cane, Dickens pits “major characters against each other in both physical, verbal and mental antagonism.” As for Melville, Cane says he uses four literary devices to characterize: complexity, as in conflicting characteristics, unreliability, in that we hear about a protagonist from different sources, selection, as in focusing on only a few main traits, and mystery, which Cane describes as things that are unknown or unknowable.

About William Faulkner Cane writes:

William Faulkner created some of the most three-dimensional and well-rounded characters in modern fiction … not what his characters are doing now but who they are, where they came from, what they did, and why they might do strange and unexpected things in the future.

One feature of Margaret Mitchell that Cane brings out is that “the viewpoint of the heroine is the chief filter used to see the world of Gone With the Wind.” Mitchell “filters what happens through the mind of her protagonist and by doing so ensures the readers are in close connection with her heroine throughout the story.” She makes extensive use of interior monologue and intense emotion to drive the story.

These ideas – and likely others – will help us discover more about character in historical fiction.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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.