Why Care About Characters In Historical Novels? by Anne Perry
Why should anyone care about characters in historical novels? It all happened to other people, a long time ago, and very likely somewhere else. The people involved are possibly not even ancestors of mine. Plus, I live in the here and now. So do you – but, at the very least, you stand on the shoulders of all those who went before. You reap the harvest they sowed, physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, politically and artistically.
Does it have to be about you to be interesting? The world is infinitely bigger and more beautiful than any one person’s horizon. As Shylock, a fictional Jewish money-lender in Italy, written about by a 16th – early 17th century Englishman, asks: ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?” The most powerful experiences of humanity are common to us all. That is what you want to build on in your stories.
By all means, get the history right. For heaven’s sake, avoid major errors. They will destroy people’s ‘suspension of disbelief’. But keep your history lesson discreet. The reader should feel: ‘I am there! I feel it and taste it!’, not ‘I could pass an exam on this period if I wanted to!’
In all the books I have read on writing fiction of any sort, the instructors say that all kinds of error can be mended, except a lack of passion. Setting, dialogue, character and even plot can be remedied with hard work. Not lack of passion – that is a disease to death.
We need to know who we are rooting for, what they want and why it matters to them so much – then it will matter to us also. We need to know what stands in the way of them getting it, therefore we need some common ground:
“I’m tired and cold and my feet hurt. I can’t go another step!”
“I’m alone and I’m lost. I’m scared stiff. There’s somebody pursuing me!”
“I stare at the sunset and it is so beautiful, the last light on the fields tears at my heart, what will I do when it passes? How do I hold on to glory?”
“How do I deal with grief, failure, the fear of death?”
“I look at the stars, countless even in the imagination. How do they come into being? Did somebody make them? If so, who am I to them?”
“I’m hungry. Who will feed me?”
These could be anybody, anywhere and any time since the dawn of human life. Tell me a story about them and I care. It could be me.
Make the setting real, urgent and different. Make it belong to a time and place where other things were expected. But keep the heart the same. The things that change are interesting and fun. It is the things that are the same that make us care.
Enjoy the time travel – and take us with you!
Anne Perry’s author website: www.anneperry.co.uk
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