Thoughts on Creating Believable Historical Characters
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. I 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 it in Peter Pan. It also causes me to lose faith it he 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’ etc., so often that it is irritating 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. 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 British Empire 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.
There are many traps for the unwary novelist but with careful research most of them can be overcome.