Writing Historical Characters: Easier or Harder?

Guest Post by N. L. Holmes

One of the most important aspects of any novel that aspires to literary quality is the depth of the characterizations. Unless the book is completely plot driven (is there any such book?), it’s through the characters that readers will be able to identify with and be drawn into your story and your world.  This becomes a particularly acute issue in historical fiction, where strange names, customs, and world views may make identification just a little bit harder for many people. They must be able to understand and feel for those “foreigners” from the land of the past.

In historical fiction, we encounter two kinds of characters, the fictional and the real. Writers of contemporary tales rarely, if ever, touch a real personage because anybody still alive may well sue them. But Henry VIII or Cleopatra can’t fight back if they don’t like your portrayal, and—let’s face it—such high-powered, complicated people, whose actions had huge stakes, do make fantastic literary characters. However, how much do we really know about the personality, the inner life, of real people in the past? The answer is variable. We tend to know a great deal more about recent figures than about those in the deep past. But even there, what you “know” depends upon whom you ask. Take Richard III. Was he a villain or just a guy doing his imperfect best? He had the misfortune to be depicted by one of the world’s best playwrights—in the service of his enemy’s family. If the Tudors had lost, we might know Richard as a very different person.

The bottom line is that even real characters in novels are essentially fictional. Authors adhere to all that is known about a person, but then they have to make a value judgment. Is this guy good or bad? Or better still, they conclude he was a real human being—flawed but honestly trying. All we can probably trust are the accounts that tell us what he did and perhaps what he said. It’s the author’s privilege to ascribe motives, create a backstory, show the conflicted conscience that might have ended in a terrible deed. Because every person who does something terrible isn’t necessarily altogether villainous, and it depends on the author’s personal take just how that character fares on paper. I can vouch for that from personal experience, as my depiction of certain historical figures is very different from those of many another author. Which of us is right? Both, I suspect—or neither!

Then, of course, there are the genuinely fictional characters, personages made up whole cloth from the imagination, names and all. These are usually “small people” whom history would have forgotten even had they really lived. It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to insert a King John III into the history of medieval England—the evidence is too strong that he never existed—but a certain blacksmith or herbalist is by no means improbable. Here, the author has complete liberty to design a personality, a backstory, a life trajectory. There is no right or wrong depiction. Readers ask only that they be a believable human, a believable inhabitant of their century, richly enough drawn that empathy has something to hang its coat on.

Which is easier to write, then—the known real personage or the purely fictional one? In the first case, you have the aid of some documentation, which could be extensive. This is good. However, it also requires a lot of extra research, not only to situate them accurately in their time but also to respect all the known facts about their lives. In the case of imaginary personages, the author has complete liberty to create whatever type of character they want, but first she has to think it up. A harder row for the imagination to hoe, perhaps. In either case, believability is the touchstone of success.

Historical? Every time the reader encounters that person in a nonfictional account, they should picture them as they met them in your novel. Fictional? Any mention of a place or time where your character has walked, readers should be able to imagine them there. In short, those characters should become real.

N.L. Holmes is the pen name of a real-life archaeologist who writes books set in the Late Bronze Age in Egypt and the Hittite Empire. She grew up in a book-loving family, and as soon as she retired from teaching, she couldn’t wait to turn the events of history into fiction. Field excavation has given her a taste for the little details of ancient life. She lives in France and Florida with her husband and two cats. Visit her online.

One thought on “Writing Historical Characters: Easier or Harder?

  1. That’s such a great question — ideally, I guess we hope that the “made-up” characters seem as real as the actual folks, and that the actual historical people become real — with the “based on real” characters, I find myself struggling with the whole “but wait, did she *really* do this/think this…” And then I have to give myself license to think in terms of character & story; I’m not writing biography…!

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