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.


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