Writing Authentic And Engaging Characters For Historical Novels, by Emma Darwin
If you admit that you write historical fiction then the first thing that readers and aspiring writers often say is how you must have to do lots of research. They have heard that everyone should ‘write what you know’ and they know that we write what we don’t know. I do lots of research, of course, although my goal is always, as Rose Tremain put it, to leave the research behind.
Researched material must never read like researched material in your novel. It must become no more, no less and, above all, no different in its value or quality from everything else that you know. Once I’ve found the material, ideally I toss it into the pot of my imagination to stew down until I can’t remember when or where I found it: until it is ‘what I know’. It can then float up like any other piece of knowledge, simply because the story demands it.
But what material? When people think about how historical settings are different from ours, it’s material culture they’re most aware of: food, transport, weapons and contraception. Those are important but they’re also relatively straightforward – if not always easy – to find out about. Then there are the subtler things: voting systems, church-going habits and smoking manners.
What about the things your characters think about life on earth and life beyond it: death, birth and love? We know that clothes change, but we’d rather believe that human nature is eternal: that we ‘know’ it. You can read up on sun-worship or astrology or human sacrifice, though it can be difficult to get a feel for the range of people’s beliefs within a doctrine and how that played out in everyday life.
An absolute faith that God made the world and has his eye on you is hard for some modern writers to truly live inside, let alone evoke for readers. What about the knowledge that the woman you love passionately is nonetheless absolutely your inferior? Or that you have the right of life and death over your children? Or that you’re predestined to salvation or damnation and no good or bad act of yours can change that?
After all, your characters don’t think about whether they believe these things, any more than we now think about whether stars explode or humans evolved from primates: these ideas shape what we see and do, and what we are to ourselves and others.
Even if you know all that’s to be known about Then, you’re writing for readers Now. Yes, we must believe in them as people in their time, but we must also feel real human connection with us in ours, or why should we care what happens to them enough to keep reading? A real 17th century pickpocket or duke had views about Jews or dogs or Catholics or Protestants to which we probably have a knee-jerk reaction of disgust but we must care about your pickpocket or your duke. You’ve got some finessing to do.
Emma Darwin’s author website: www.emmadarwin.com
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Writing Historical Novels