Historical Setting as Character

Guest Post by Megan Easley-Walsh –

As writers, characters are an integral part of the story. No matter how good a plot is, without characters to live the plot, there will be no story. In historical fiction, the setting itself becomes a character. While this may be true for other novels set in particularly interesting locations, for historical novels this is true of both place and time. Here are some tips for helping setting become a character.

Characters are Dynamic

Characters change throughout the story, experiencing difficulties, learning, growing, and achieving (or not achieving) some yearned for goal. For historical fiction, setting should also be dynamic. For example, novels set during the Second World War will necessarily be different if the date is September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, or June 6, 1944, when the Allies landed in Normandy on D-Day.

Dynamism and Tone

Dynamism and tone are influenced by character. For some historical fiction, the dynamism of the setting will mean that tensions are heightening as a climatic date is reached. This may create either a sense of mounting dread or a sense of coming hope. What type of situation approaches will greatly impact the tone of the story that is written. This is akin to how motivations and life circumstances impact the tone of characters in a novel.

Historical Accuracy

Historical accuracy is important. While this is obviously true when writing historical fiction, from a setting as character point of view, the importance of accuracy is reflected in the question, “is that true to character?” How characters interact with each other is key in novels. When setting is treated as a character, how the character interacts with his or her own time and place also becomes intensely important. If a character is behaving recklessly in a dangerous time, consequences must result, or the story loses credibility. Think, for example, “Loose lips sink ships”.  Or, if a character is behaving outside of gender or societal norms for the time, this must be addressed. Something as simple as wearing pants for women was not respectable until quite recently.

What’s Off the Page

Not everything in a character’s life happens on the page. Likewise, not everything in the historical setting’s life happens on the page. What this means is that characters may reminiscence about how life was before war or before women had the right to vote or before the fall of the Roman Empire. In real life, we remember earlier times. Our world is a changing character in its own right. Likewise, it ought to be for your characters, as they interact with the character of setting.

Use the Senses

Including traits that make your characters distinct, to include the use of five senses, is important in creating vibrancy. Make sure that the same rule is applied for the character of the historical setting. Show the reader what Paris looked like as the Eiffel Tower was being built, waft the smell of fresh-baked bread toward the reader, or pelt the reader with the torrential rain that fell for days. Whatever smells, sights, sounds, tastes, and textures would have been a part of the unique time and place that you are writing about should be incorporated. This will help enliven the rich tapestry of experience for readers.

Keeping these few tips in mind will help to create a stronger historical context to place your characters in. Treating the historical setting as a character allows for its complete and fulfilling development within the story, leaving the readers with a more satisfying experience.

Megan Easley-Walsh, PhD History, is an author of historical fiction, a researcher published in peer-reviewed journals, and a writing consultant and editor at Extra Ink Edits. To date, she has ten published historical novels. She is an award-winning writer and has taught college writing in the UNESCO literature city of Dublin, Ireland. She is a dual American and Irish citizen and lives in Ireland with her Irish husband. Megan is a Professional Member of the Irish Writers’ Centre, a Full Member of the Irish Writers’ Union, a member of the Historical Novel Society, a Full Member of ACES: The Society for Editing, a member of the Irish Association of Professional Historians, a member of the American Historical Association, a member of the Irish Association of Art Historians, and a member of The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. Additionally, she was shortlisted for the 2021 Hammond House International Literary Prize in Poetry and the 2023 Hammond House Origins Poetry Contest. Visit her at MeganEasleyWalsh.com.

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