Writing Characters In Historical Novels, by Adrian Goldsworthy
Characters carry the story in a novel. They are not simply a convenient means of allowing you to talk about things. Even if your book is really about a big event, the characters must be interesting or the reader will not engage with the story. It is through them that readers will experience the story, so the characters need to be well drawn. At the very least the reader must quickly gain a sense of who they are.
The majority of stories will have a central protagonist – a hero or heroine or, at the very least, the person most central to the story. In a romance there will also be the lover and in adventure stories there is often also a second, supporting character – e.g. Hornblower and Bush, Sharpe and Harper, or Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Often the hero is fairly simply the man who can fight his way through any obstacle. Patrick O’Brian’s series of naval adventures involving this last pair show that these can be complex and well rounded, with Aubrey as a clever and highly competent sailor; big, brave, yet often completely out of his depth on land. Meanwhile, Maturin is a highly intelligent secret agent and natural philosopher baffled by the mysteries of the sea and, for all his education and cynicism, as unworldly as his friend in his own way. Their shared love of music provides another aspect to the relationship and adds depth to the story. Unusually, these stories are just as involving when much of the book is spent on land.
Your choice of characters will also depend on whether you plan the story as a one-off or as part of a series. If the latter then it is doubly important to have a central character or characters to follow. In my case I knew that I wanted a series, because I wanted to follow the characters and a regiment through the Peninsula War and take them to Waterloo, and knew that I wanted more detail for this story than would be possible in a single novel. This is an era firmly associated with Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe, both from the novels and the TV series starring Sean Bean. The first book in the series came out while I was at school and really ignited my fascination with the Napoleonic era and especially with Wellington’s army. Sharpe is a great character: the handsome, hard-fighting hero, and also the poor man struggling to make his way in a world dominated by wealth and privilege.
It would now be very hard to write about a single, central hero who did not come across as a clone of Richard Sharpe – in the same way that all nautical heroes are bound to be compared to Hornblower, Ramage, Bolitho, Aubrey and the rest. Cornwell is a very good writer and I knew that I could not hope to create a hero who would ever be more than a pale shadow of Sharpe. On top of this, I wanted to explore more of the world of the army in that period and write about characters more typical of the age than the self-made Sharpe. This meant that they should also be restricted to behaviour more appropriate for the time, rather than straightforward fictional heroics. So the answer was not to have one central hero, but a group of three or four young officers who together make up a hero. This means that they can each be very good at something but that none of them needs to be the sort of heroic character who always wins – the fighter and lover the reader would more than half like to resemble. Instead, I wanted the reader to feel superior to each of them in some ways, giving them aspects of the unworldly feel of O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin. Therefore, Williams is Sharpe-like in that he is a natural soldier and killer, but is shy, clumsy, overtly religious in the bawdy Regency age and obsessed with a rigid view of honour. Hanley is clever, less clear about what he wants from life, unmilitary in his manner and understanding, and will gradually be drawn more and more into intelligence work where he will take a delight in deception and secrecy. The bespectacled Billy Pringle is the most normal of the three and an enthusiastic, if not always successful, womaniser over-fond of drink, but grows increasingly into his role as an officer. True Soldier Gentlemen, the first in the series, sets up the major characters as well as the rest of my fictional 106th regiment, and consequently has a slower pace than is probably ideal. My hope is that if people read the rest of the series then they will understand why I did it that way. In subsequent books the focus varies and some of the stories concentrate a little bit more on one of the trio than the others. The other big advantage of a group of characters is that you can separate them and so get to talk about different things going on simultaneously. A single central hero has to be everywhere and do everything, which can be hard for the author to arrange plausibly.
Apart from your own creations, some of the time you may be writing about real people. If famous and from a well documented period then these may be recognisable to the reader as soon as they appear, or simply by name. Many people will already have an idea of what Napoleon was like. If someone like this appears in a minor role, then you may choose to go no further than the popular image, even if it remains a caricature. If they play a bigger part in the novel, then you will want to develop the character. This can be based on detailed research. Making them say things they are recorded as having said or written can be a good, quick way of capturing their personality and may help to give you the right feel for inventing more dialogue for them. On the other hand, this can easily be overdone and too much risks making them wooden. Unless the individual is making a formal proclamation or speech, substantial quotes can come across as dry and artificial. Similarly, letters follow different rules to everyday speech and large chunks of them presented as dialogue rarely work well.
Even if the real person is well documented, your story might either involve them in things that we know little about or deliberately suggest a side of their personality different to their public persona. If you are dealing with earlier periods, then we may simply know little about their private life. For instance, in Ben Kane’s series’ about Spartacus and Hannibal, he can follow the facts for what they did and some of how they did it, but why and what it meant to them must come from plausible invention. We know almost nothing of either of these men’s inner thoughts and private life, and little more about those of better documented people like Caesar or Cleopatra. In such cases you will probably find yourself inventing material. The historian in me feels strongly that even when inventing you should do your best to be true to the real person, and not make them do anything wholly out of character, but this is a personal choice. In the end, this is a novel and the degree of invention is up to the author. However, it never does any harm to make it clear that this is what you are doing.
Adrian Goldsworthy’s author website: www.adriangoldsworthy.com
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Writing Historical Novels