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.

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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 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.

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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.