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Writing A Good Main Character For A Historical Novel, by Gary Worthington

Given my own passion for reading historical fiction as well as writing it, over the years I’ve noted both what I’ve liked about other authors’ works and what went wrong with their efforts.

By far the most frequent reason I stop reading a novel early on is that I don’t identify with the main character; the main character is not a person I care about or want to spend my limited time with. Unfortunately it’s an issue that’s too common.

Does a main character need to be “likable”? Not necessarily. But, if not, the main character should be interesting or intriguing enough that the reader wants to learn more about the person or to see how they handle the challenges posed in the plot.

In your tale, the main character should be faced with some crucial threat or dilemma. How he or she responds to the problem will help define the person, who should somehow grow or change during the course of the story as a result of dealing with the challenge.

For example, the main character in the treasure hunt in my novels India Treasures and India Fortunes was born an extremely low caste Untouchable, but through education and hard work he is able to successfully pass himself off to others as a high caste Rajput. However, he lives in constant fear of having his masquerade exposed, and this anxiety colors all aspects of his professional work and his relationships with others.

The minor characters are also important, not only in interactions with the main character but also in creating a sense of reality in the fictional world.

How do we develop appropriate characters who live on in the reader’s mind after the tale is done?

Most of the characters in my own historical novels have been either real or fictional inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent. For major Mughal emperors, or for 20th century historical figures, often a large amount of information is available about their personalities and appearance. Typically, the further back in time the less that is known about the characteristics of even famous historical people. Except for a relatively few real kings, queens, and politicians, I’ve had quite a bit of leeway in developing characters.

I’ve made a list of the names and locations of almost every person I’ve met or observed during my visits in India, as well as some people of Indian origin I’ve encountered in America. Sometimes I made a short notation describing the person. There are a few hundred of these people in many walks of life whom I can use for inspiration. I don’t base every detail of a character entirely on an actual person I’ve met, but often I’ve used one or more of the real person’s prominent attributes as a starting point. Doing so helps a character come alive on the page.

It often also aids me initially to use a photograph for inspiration. For many characters in my India tales, I’ve cut out photos from the Indian news magazines to which I subscribe. Each photo preferably gives clues to the subject’s personality – eyes that are lively and hinting at fun, a scowl that indicates irritation, a gaze directed elsewhere indicating boredom, an overall air of arrogance or a pleasant smile.

If you’re writing a tale set during the last half century or so, in our celebrity-obsessed culture, it can sometimes be useful to think of a movie or TV actor or some other readily recognizable figure as an inspiration for a character. You might even tell the reader that your character looks like that celebrity as an aid in quickly forming a visual image.

Of course, in writing historical fiction, you have to be careful not to create anachronisms, so any well-known figure you mention in a description should be from the time period of the story. This obviously can get more difficult the farther back in time you go. It might work fairly easily if your tale is set around 1900 and you say, for example, that your character looks like a red haired version of Theodore Roosevelt or Mark Twain.

If you’re writing a tale set in 1700, there probably aren’t many historical figures from that period that can aid the modern reader in forming a mental image. However, you might be able to think of  other possibilities for a comparison, as Oliver Potzsch did in describing a 1660s Bavarian pastor in the recent historical novel The Dark Monk:

“His broad figure completely filled the opening in the church floor. He was more than six feet tall, a bear of a man who, with his long, broad beard and bushy black eyebrows, looked like the personification of an Old Testament God. When Koppmeyer stood before the altar in his black robe and delivered his homilies in a deep, gruff voice, his appearance alone caused his flock to tremble and instilled in them the fear of purgatory.”

Occasionally I have difficulty making a character come to life in my mind. One exercise I’ve found helpful is to write about the character from a different point of view. If the story is being told about the character in the third person, then write a first person episode using the character’s own thoughts. Or write about the character as seen from another person who knows him or is interacting with him.

Another  exercise that can be useful is to imagine putting the character into various situations to see how he or she reacts. Maybe, for example, have the person enter a room and encounter a group of strangers who stare blankly at him. Is he confident enough to be at ease, possibly smiling and seating himself as if he belongs? Or is he so ill at ease he wants to flee?

Keep in mind that readers crave action, not just a character’s thoughts. Readers want to involve themselves with characters acting in response to the challenges posed or doing something else mysterious, puzzling or otherwise intriguing.

I recommend using a checklist of traits as an aid in creating characters, including getting to know their motivations and how they respond as they are tested by events. I developed my own checklist over the years, which I’ll offer in the next post.


Gary Worthington’s author website:

Gary Worthington’s bio page


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Writing Historical Novels


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