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Creating Convincing Characters For Historical Novels, by William Dietrich

A journalist colleague and I recently commiserated on the challenge we’ve faced as reporters in crafting convincing characters. For newspaper work, we’re not allowed to get into our subject’s heads.

The reason is the impossibility of doing so in the real world. No matter how many interviews I conduct, there’s a difference between what I think my subject thinks, what he says he thinks, what he really thinks he thinks, and what he truly actually thinks. Not only is it impossible to fully inhabit the mind of a spouse or friend, it’s hard to honestly understand even our own.

A novelist, in contrast, is omniscient. His character is a fictional creation, with ideas and secrets as deep or shallow as the author’s. It’s difficult for a careful journalist to allow ourselves this freedom to pry into the minds of those we’ve invented, but the more we do so, the more gripping the story. Good fiction is like eavesdropping on the subconscious.

Convincing characters are even more challenging to create in historical fiction. Their decisions are constrained by real historical events and people. Their assumptions about religion, science, morality, and ambition are different than those of the 21st Century. Conditions are cruder, lifespans shorter, disease more common, punishments harsher, pain familiar, and hunger more than an abstraction. How do we get in their heads?

One way is to read autobiographies by people of the period. Unfortunately, for all but the recent past these are apt to be limited to the upper educated class and take for granted many of the details of everyday life we’d like them to dwell on. Still, they provide a window into the assumptions and preoccupations of the period.

Another is to introduce your fictional character to real ones, using real biographies to lend realism. Through research to make the real person convincing, the author gets a sense of historical norms. The interactions lend verisimilitude.

Telling the story through the first person, or “I,” is a way to get an author into the head of a fictional character. Even if the decision is made to ultimately tell the story in the third person so that the point of view can move from character to character, a few pages of inner thoughts from a character can do wonders to clarify who that person is.

Externals help. You can regard your fledgling historical character as Barbie or GI Joe and “dress” them with period detail that helps develop their character and quirks. Do they wear boots or slippers? Do they carry a pistol or a pocket watch? Are their clothes freshly laundered or infused with wood smoke, tobacco, and food stains? Do they favor perfume or brandy? Hair long or short, whiskers bushy or nonexistent, jewelry a scrap of bone or glittering ruby, waist cinched for a ballroom or loose to bend in the fields, underwear silk or scratchy, beret or derby, shoes polished or worn at the heels, do they finger snuff box or rosary? As you paste on details, you begin to get a sense of character to accompany them.

Their minds ultimately, of course, are yours. So the deeper you can mine your own experiences, the more vivid your creations.


William Dietrich’s author website:

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