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.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION –  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

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.

My Dear Hamilton by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

The last line of chapter one in Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie’s latest novel, My Dear Hamilton, sets the stage for this compelling novel about the forging of America: “But how, I wondered, could a daughter make a difference?” And what a difference Eliza Schuyler Hamilton made.

Not being a student of American history—the Canadian curriculum is, not surprisingly, more focused on Canadian matters—I found both American’s First Daughter and My Dear Hamilton fascinating portrayals of the men and women who played pivotal roles during the revolution and the founding of this great nation.

Beginning in 1777 with a victory against the British at Saratoga, My Dear Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton through the eyes of his wife Eliza. Dray and Kamoie bring great richness to Alexander and Eliza and the many famous people involved: James Monroe, Benedict Arnold, Lafayette, Aaron Burr, James Madison, General Washington, John Adams and others.

Two aspects were of particular interest to me: the complex and exceedingly difficult process of drafting America’s constitution; and, the intense love and strife of Eliza and Alexander’s marriage. It’s an emotional roller coaster with passion, greed, war, betrayal, love, scandal, mutiny, death, corruption, infidelity, and treason playing centre stage at various times.

My Dear Hamilton is superb historical fiction.

FOR MORE 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.

Interview with Stephanie Dray, co-author of American’s First Daughter

A few weeks ago, I read America’s First Daughter written by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie. The novel was so excellent, I should use the word devoured! It’s difficult enough for one author to create a story let alone two, so I decided to find out more. Here’s Stephanie letting us in on her writing world and how she works with Laura.

Can you tell us a little of your journey from newbie author to bestselling author?

Gosh, it was a long journey. I started out as a fantasy writer who didn’t realize she wanted to write historical fiction. I have some manuscripts that are truly terrible, and will be hidden under the bed forever. But I eventually started getting little stories published in professional publications, then, under a pen name, I started writing genre fiction for traditional publishers. And my first historical was LILY OF THE NILE about the little known daughter of Cleopatra and Marc Antony who went on to be one of the greatest client queens in the Roman empire. That became a trilogy, and a passion. After seven years in the ancient world, however, I was ready to move on. And it was America’s First Daughter that gave me the chance to do that. I was both surprised, and delighted by the public response to it, and that it hit the NYT Bestseller list, now with hundreds of thousands of books sold. But I really take nothing for granted. In this business, you’re only ever as good as your last book.

What took you from lawyer/teacher to writing historical fiction? And how did your earlier career help your writing career?

The lawyer joke that I often make is that I decided if I was going to lie for a living I’d rather write fiction. It always makes me laugh, but it’s a bit too flip, really, both with its attitude towards lawyers and fiction writing, because both seek out greater truths even if it’s a circuitous path there. I think my earlier career helped me learn to research, and it definitely gave me an appreciation for how history and precedent shapes the present world, an understanding I try to bring to all my work.

With the H-Team and Laura Kamoie you seem to have become an expert at writing fiction collaboratively. Can you tell us why you chose that path? And secondly, can you give us some insights on how the process works so that the reader has a seamless reading experience?

I didn’t set out to be the Queen of Collaboration; I think it’s just that I’m a very social creature and writing can be a very solitary profession. I do it because my craft improves by learning from others and I’ve been blessed to have some extremely talented writer friends. Even so, my writing relationship with Laura is special.

Now, we’re good friends, which helps enormously. But we also think alike when it comes to story structure. With regard to America’s First Daughter, we had a completely unified vision of how the story should unfold from day one, and that served us well. Especially on the rare occasion that we came up against editorial pushback from critique partners or others. We very rarely disagreed and when we did, we always fashioned a third solution that was better than what either of us originally intended.

We found ourselves in more disagreement regarding My Dear Hamilton, but that was only because our original idea, which we thought was so clever, didn’t work at all. And so, under extreme deadline pressures, we had to very quickly navigate a new path. But in the end, the respect we have for one another always gets us through the process and makes a stronger book. Laura and I edit each other’s words freely. We use track changes, of course, so that if there’s a dispute about something we can see what’s changed and we can talk about it. But there’s really no ego surrounding the sanctity of our words. They’re Patsy’s words or Eliza’s words and we just try to make them the best they can be.

You’ve written several novels set in ancient Egypt and with America’s First Daughter and the upcoming My Dear Hamilton, you are now focused on American history. What prompted the switch?

There are two reasons, really. The first is that, as a Government major and former lawyer, I have always wanted to write about the Founding Fathers and even when I look back to my creative writing in college I see that I was writing historical fiction about figures in government. Fortunately, America’s First Daughter gave me a chance to write about a Founding Father from the eyes of his daughter Patsy, a little known woman who had a great deal of influence over our country’s conception of itself.

The second reason for the switch is that I like to be read, and the commercial niche for ancient history–especially stories about ancient women who don’t wield swords–is a smaller one than for American history at this particular juncture. Readers have a lot of people clamoring for their attention these days; I will always try to give them what they want. In the end, it’s a fortuitous switch because as it happens, America and ancient Rome have a lot in common. The clothes are different. The climate is different. But the ideas, tensions, and struggles are very similar. And of course, I’m fascinated by Republics. Their rise, their fall, their triumphs and failures. That’s the stuff of drama!

American’s First Daughter is wonderfully written and a compelling story. How did you go about the research process?

Oh, thank you for your kind remarks about the novel. It truly was a passion project. The research, I confess, was arduous, but made much easier by the national archives, where 18k letters of Jefferson have been cataloged, digitized and transcribed. From his letters, we moved to the letters of the family, which are kept on Monticello.org. These are amazing resources for all Americans and it made it much easier for us to imagine the inner thoughts of our characters–because they wrote some of them down.

Patsy Jefferson lives a long life. How did you decide what and what not to include?

That was really tough. There were a number of times that I wished things would stop happening to her. We ended up stripping a lot of the politics out of the book simply because Patsy was removed from a lot of it. Her father got to be the president because she was busy keeping his plantation going, but that meant she wasn’t directly involved with many of the more famous, or infamous, political doings of the day. Not so Eliza Hamilton, I should add, who was right in the thick of it with her husband at the time. Our basic rule was that if something didn’t directly shape or influence the character arc we wanted for Patsy then it would have to go.

You say that you write about women who live in the shadows of men and that your novels explore “the moral dilemmas, difficult choices, and heartbreaking sacrifices that shaped these women’s lives.” How do you choose which women to write about?

In some ways I almost feel as if they choose me. Cleopatra Selene certainly did. I was actually trying to write a story about her brother, but I kept hearing her voice in my head. The same thing happened to me with Cartimandua from A Year of Ravens. I was supposed to write about someone else, but I couldn’t fall asleep at night because this ancient lady wouldn’t shut up. I know that sounds pretty woo woo, and I’m not one of those people who think the dead literally speak to them. But there’s an exercise in empathy that happens while writing and the mind latches onto what it latches onto. Psychological alchemy, I guess.

I will say though, that there’s no way that Patsy Jefferson chose me. In fact, both Laura and I were acutely aware that she would not have wanted her story told which made her a truly challenging woman to write about!

What do you think are the critical ingredients of historical fiction? And why do you think readers enjoy the genre?

Oh goodie! An invitation to ride my hobby horse. I apply a very emphatically broad definition to the genre. If it’s set in the past–let’s say more than thirty years–it’s some sort of historical fiction. Whether or not it will be enjoyable or good is a much different question that depends on any variety of factors, but I take a very hard line against folks who get all sniffy about what does, or does not, belong in our genre based on their own particular preferences. I think we all need to be welcoming more readers, with their varied tastes, into the fold. For me personally, what I enjoy about historical fiction is learning something new; generally what I read prompts me to do a little research of my own or ask questions I would never have asked. I enjoy slipping into a different world than my own, without all the modern baggage we carry, to try and wrap my mind around human problems–which I don’t believe ever really change.

America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie – In a compelling, richly researched novel that draws from thousands of letters and original sources, bestselling authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie tell the fascinating, untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph—a woman who kept the secrets of our most enigmatic founding father and shaped an American legacy.

My Dear Hamilton by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie – From the New York Times bestselling authors of America’s First Daughter comes the epic story of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton—a revolutionary woman who, like her new nation, struggled to define herself in the wake of war, betrayal, and tragedy. Haunting, moving, and beautifully written, Dray and Kamoie used thousands of letters and original sources to tell Eliza’s story as it’s never been told before—not just as the wronged wife at the center of a political sex scandal—but also as a founding mother who shaped an American legacy in her own right. Coming April 2018.

Many thanks, Stephanie. I’m delighted to have you on the blog. I’m sure readers will find your experience as a co-author and writer of historical fiction very interesting.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (either through WordPress or by 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.