Monday, August 13, 2012

Thoughts on Creating Believable Historical Characters

Thoughts on Creating Believable Historical Characters
by Rosemary Morris

So far, I have only written historical novels set in England, but regardless of when and where a novel is set the characters must be believable.

Before I start writing a historical novel I name my characters. To do so find The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names invaluable.

Even then, I can go wrong.  For example, in my work in progress set in Edward II of England’s reign I named the hero’s father, Marmaduke.  Someone who critiques my chapters pointed out that Marmaduke is the name of a popular cartoon character in the U.S.A.  To be on the safe side I checked in the Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names and found out that Marmaduc was mentioned in the Assize Rolls in 1219 so I renamed my character.

It irritates me when, for example, a character is called Wendy prior to 1904 when J.M.Barry first used the name in Peter Pan.  It also causes me to lose faith it the author. 

After I name my characters I create a detailed profile for each major character.  Later, as I introduce other characters, I create a simple one for each minor character.  This helps me to breathe life into each protagonist.

Amongst other things in the profiles, I describe the character’s physical appearance, background, and, if necessary, regional accent.  In dialogue, I indicate the accent and try not overdo it.  (I’ve noticed that some authors who set their novels in Scotland use words such as ‘aye’, ‘ye’, dinna’, etc., so often that it irritates me and makes the dialogue difficult to read.)

Other considerations are financial circumstances, home life, education, and relatives who assist or obstruct my character.

Characters’ behaviour and attitudes need to be in accordance with the historical period that a novelist has chosen.   In my opinion, and others may disagree, a novel in which the characters act like 21st century people transported back in time is unbelievable.  Before I begin a novel I work my way through a pile of reference books in order to understand contemporary attitudes and beliefs. 

I also need to understand the ramifications of class.  For example, in my mediaeval novel an earl wants to dress his mistress in opulent clothes but obeys the law governing what different classes may wear.  Status is another important consideration.  The earl’s mistress (a villein) plans and plots ways to gain her freedom.

Another important consideration is the position of women in society.  Other than widows, did they have any control over their property?  Did they have any say in the way their children were brought up?  What were the differences between women from different classes?  Something a novelist needs to bear in mind is that throughout the ages, women have been controlled by men due to factors such as family ties, financial considerations and the law. If a woman chose to defy her father, legal guardian or husband, what would her situation be?  Without masculine support, how would she survive?  Another question that needs to be answered is how men regarded women.

A historical novelist needs to know how those in the chosen era regarded the world around them.  What did they think of foreigners, other religions, education, war, etc?  For example, depending on when the novel is set, and to name a few issues, what were the attitudes towards the Roman occupation, Wars of the Roses, the dissolution of the monasteries, the Roman Catholic Church,  the war of Spanish succession, the Napoleonic Wars, the British Empire and the Boer War and the 1st and 2nd world wars.

There are many other things to consider, including the clothes which were worn.  I was very amused by a young woman in a novel who ran for a mile in spite of tightly laced stays stiffened with whalebone and full skirts and petticoats. Tears formed in my eyes when I read about a little girl who died after her stays were laced so tightly that a rib broke and pierced her lung.

There are many traps for the unwary novelist but with careful research most of them can be overcome.

Author Bio:
Rosemary Morris was born in 1940 in Sidcup Kent.  As a child, when she was not making up stories, her head was ‘always in a book.’
While working in a travel agency, Rosemary met her Indian husband.  He encouraged her to continue her education at Westminster College.  In 1961 Rosemary and her husband, now a barrister, moved to his birthplace, Kenya, where she lived from 1961 until 1982.  After an attempted coup d’├ętat, she and four of her children lived in an ashram in France.
Back in England, Rosemary wrote historical fiction.  She is now a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, Historical Novel Society and Cassio Writers.
Apart from writing, Rosemary enjoys classical Indian literature, reading, visiting places of historical interest, vegetarian cooking, growing organic fruit, herbs and vegetables and creative crafts.
Time spent with her five children and their families, most of who live near her is precious.


phawkenson said...

Thank you for these suggestions. I'll have to compare each of my characters against these attributes before sending my final draft to an editor.

Kathryn Warner said...

There was a knight called Marmaduke Basset in Edward II's reign - Edward called him 'Duket'. ;-)

Rosemary Morris said...

Ms P. Hawkenson,

I'm pleased to know my suggestions are helpful,

All the best,


Rosemary Morris said...


Yes,I know about the knight you refered to, and I also know of two other Marmadukes, one of which is a historical figure, the other a character in a cartoon, so I chose Marmaduc,

All the best,

Rosemary Morris

Pursuing31 said...

I'm working in my first draft, and after reading this article, I'm inspired to dive more into my characters. Thank you for the suggestions!

Mikki said...

Thanks for such a great article. I spent almost 2 years researching for my historical pre-Civil War novel, and also included things like: type of homes; furniture;types of shops and markets in small towns and what they carried; and because my novel dealt with slavery, I also included how slaves dressed, lived on plantations, how they were treated, etc. I love historical novels but also get upset when authors so obviously don't do their research!

Anonymous said...

Rosemary - what an excellent article. I don't write historical novels, but have a great appreciation for those that do...and after reading your article I have even great admiration. Wow, there's a lot to it.
Thanks so much for giving me a thorough understanding:)

Wendy said...

Hi Rosalie,
My novel is a medieval historical and the research was time consuming -years - but so rewarding because it allowed me to actually live the life with my characters, as you would know from your research. I think you covered just about everything. I enjoyed your post. Thank you.

Wendy said...

Sorry, I did mean Hi Rosemary. :)

Sara Durham Writer ~ Author said...

Wonderful post Rosemary! My WIP has a lesser parallel story set in 18th century Paris, and though there is much written about pre-revolutionary France, it still takes a bit of time and effort to really get a feel for the era and culture, then translate into fiction! So I appreciate someone who can take on a full historical novel! Thanks for sharing and reminding of us of the pitfalls of slipping back into the 21st century when we should be elsewhere:)