Making Historical Characters Your Own


Did you know that Eleanor of Aquitaine, in addition to being married to two kings and giving birth to three more, and in addition to riding to the Holy Land with the Second Crusade, spent sixteen years of her life in prison (by order of her second husband) and outlived all but two of her ten children?  Did you know that Samuel Adams, in addition to helping to build momentum for the American Revolution, and in addition to being a brewmaster (yes, he really was, although not a successful one), was afflicted all his life with a mild palsy, lost his first wife when she was only thirty-two, and spent much of his early career deeply in debt?

Character, we often say here at MW, is the most important element of storytelling.  Stuart wrote about this on Friday.  You can come up with a great story and set it in a fascinating world, but if your characters are flat, your book probably won’t capture your readers’ imaginations.  On the other hand, characters that are powerful and intriguing can often overcome other flaws in a story or book.  And I have said before that the best characters I write are those who are fully products of my creative process.  When I try to base a character on a person I know, the character often doesn’t develop a personality of his/her own.

But then, how are we to develop and write historical figures who become characters in our books?  How do we take people from history and make them “our own”? This is something I’ve dealt with quite a bit over the past few months.  While working on Robin Hood, I had to write from the point of view of several historical figures, including Richard the Lionheart, William Marshal, King John, and, yes, Eleanor of Aquitaine.  For my new series, my main character interacts not only with Samuel Adams, but also Thomas Hutchinson, James Otis, Ebenezer MacIntosh, and others.

What are the challenges of writing historical characters, and how do we overcome them?

In part, my answer has been to do with historical characters exactly what I do with fictional ones.  I start by learning as much about them as I can:  their childhoods, their personal lives, their careers.  When possible, I’ve tried to read at least something that the character wrote or said him/herself.  As you might expect, this was easier with the Revolutionary Era characters than with those in the Dark Ages.

Once I’ve learned as much as I can about the character, I then try to choose those circumstances that are likely to have the greatest impact on him/her at the particular point in history about which I’m writing.  Samuel Adams, for instance, lost his first wife early in life, but by the time he figures in my story he has just remarried.  The scars of that first loss might still be there, but there is new joy in his world as well.  On the other hand, his financial problems are very much still a factor in his day-to-day life.

The added factor here is that I also have to learn as much as I can about the world in which they live.  I need to understand the basic assumptions of life in 12th century England or 18th century Boston, be it political realities, or the way they get their water and dispose of their waste, or contemporary attitudes toward magic and the supernatural.  Just as I have to understand a world of my own making, I need to have a grasp of that snapshot in time.  By the same token, I have to be careful not to allow my knowledge of history to get in the way of my art.  Sam Adams might have been a Revolutionary, but in 1765, when the action of my first book takes place, no one, not even Adams, was agitating for independence.  He doesn’t speak of “the British” as if they are other people.  He sees himself as British — wronged perhaps by newly enacted acts of Parliament, but a loyal subject nevertheless.  I can’t allow the history to get ahead of the story, if that makes sense.

After figuring out the character and the historical context, I then do what I need to in order to make the characters part of my story.  I take certain liberties, because this is fiction I’m writing, and while I want to be historically accurate, I also have to be true to my story.  Another for instance:  I want to give my characters an appropriate voice — either as a narrator or as a speaking character — but if I have, say, Richard the Lionheart speak as he actually did, it’s going to make little sense to my 21st century readership.  A 12th century king is not going to speak the same English we speak today, and while I might do certain things to have him sound as though he is of another time, I don’t want his dialogue to be indecipherable.  (I should note here that I actually didn’t make up any dialogue for the Robin Hood characters; only internal monologue, to which similar rules apply.   The Robin Hood script writers did a nice job of making the characters sound like people from another time, while keeping them understandable.)

I also take liberties in that none of these historical characters (I’m speaking now of the Thieftaker books) actually encountered my fictional characters or my magic system.  I have to extrapolate from what I know of the historical figures and what I know of their world, how they might respond to the circumstances I create.  By way of example, it’s probably not surprising that residents of 18th century Boston are going to see in any from of magic the lurking shadow of witchcraft.  And many of them are going to respond with the same religious zealotry that led to the 17th and 18th century New England witch trials.

Finally, I have to keep in mind that, unlike my own characters, historical figures are communally owned.  I can do anything I want to my characters, and while you as my reader might object to some of it, you understand on some level that their fates are, ultimately, mine to control.  Not so with historical figures.  Samuel Adams belongs to all of us.  I’m merely borrowing him, in a way, for my book.  And I have to respect that communal ownership.  It’s not just that I can’t kill him off before he actually died, or have him move to London and become a cross-dressing burlesque dancer.  I need to make some attempt to fit my story into his life, so that I don’t upset his personal timeline.  And I have to meld his actions and statements with what we know of his personality and all that he actually did and said.  I wouldn’t want to make him my villain, because that’s not who he was, and it would undermine my book.

In other words, there is a balance to be found.  We can make historical figures our own for the purposes of a story, or a book, or even a series.  But we have to keep in mind that this person is on loan and that eventually we are going to return him or her to the public domain.  We owe it to our readers and to history itself, to keep intact the historical legacy we’re using.

David B. Coe

24 comments to Making Historical Characters Your Own

  • I’m curious what you think of stories that do more than “borrow” a historical figure. I’m thinking of some of Tim Pratt’s work or the upcoming Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, or in film, for example, there’s the recent Inglorious Basterds (their spelling) which rewrites WWII and the deaths of numerous historical figures including Adolph Hitler. From my point of view, there are two approaches — both valid. Yours, which probably covers most usage of historical figures, and the Very Alternate History in which we expect some resemblance to the real person but accept great variations as well. Hmmmm, something to mull over this Monday morning.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter

    Nicely put, David. I like your thougth about borrowing historical people. I know of several books where the author did not show that kind of respect…and usually I hear about them because that author lost readers…people who are now angry or disgusted because they admired the character who had been malined.

    That is not to say that a person can’t take a historical character and make them their own…or even move them beyond the realm of the real…but I think it helps to have that sense of respect somewhere in the back of your mind.

  • Nice column. I think one of the things that intrigues me about this question is the idea that we owe anything to the ‘real person’s’ timeline, since we’re going to ‘return’ them to the public domain. On the one hand, I totally understand this — being a grad school refugee and history nerd, I go a bit apeshit when I read historical figures and cultures rendered ‘incorrectly.’ On the other hand, the ‘real’ timeline, and the ‘real’ historical figure are also collective fictions of a culture. We have a shared (if sometimes disputed) database of facts to work from (we can agree that Teddy Roosevelt was on San Juan Hill). But what those facts *mean* is another question entirely — especially when it comes to how our depictions will interact with the ‘public domain’ image of a given figure. For instance, our public domain image of Roosevelt is of a brash-but-literate, masculine, adventurer-turned-statesman. Personally, if I were ever to write him, I’d highlight the fact that he was also a mass-murdering spoiled rich boy crazed with power — and a hack wannabe historian to boot. Would I be tampering unconscionably with the public domain Teddy? Or revising? I’d like to think the latter. Our culture is littered with familiar images of historical figures that are deeply skewed: Poe as the quintessential woe-is-me brooding poet, Parks as a quiet little lady who didn’t understand the firestorm she was setting off by not giving up her seat to a white man. Perhaps one value of fictional history is in fact its ability to reshape our collective myths about history…

  • Fascinating post, David, and generating interesting responses. Stuart’s query about Inglorious Basterds and other “parallel universe” history was the first thing that came to my mind too. I have no problem with such rescripting of history, though I prefer it to be conspicuous and above board. When I deal with history (in my thrillers) I try to keep what is real very clear and distinct from what I make up (and add an epilogue spelling out the difference, though I think they are usually evident in the book itslef). My deeper question–which you have partly answered here (re. language) but which I may post on some other time–comes back to my persistent anxiety about “the human condition”, namely that the great fiction enacted by historical fiction is that figures from the past basically thought like we do, that in spite of their funny clothes and odd political circumstances, they are ultimately like us. I don’t really buy that, but I recognize that historical fiction has to make that leap in order for their stories to be relevant to contemporary readers. As you suggest, story has to finally trump history if what you are writing is a novel, not a treatise on time past.

  • Emily

    David> Really interesting stuff! I don’t have any desire to write actual historical figures as characters, primarily because I, too, have anxiety about not being “accurate” because I get irriated when things that should be “historical” are wrong. Things like “Inglorious Basterds” (or however he spells it) don’t bother me because they are alternate realities.

    AJ> This may not be the place to have this discussion, but if historical people don’t think like us, what do they think like? I mean, have we evolved (in the most non-progressive, just changed not gotten better sense of the word)? Because in order for us to think like we think now, there must have been some glimmer of that then, right? At least the potential?

    I mean, I think that people in England in the high middle ages thought about taxes, morality, ethics, whether there was a God and what it meant, their kids, their jobs, their places in the world. Certainly the society was different, as was some of their conceptions of self, but were there processes different?

    I guess I’m asking to you mean literally had a different thought process (cognitive process, I guess) or do you mean had different parameters, social structures, values? Or both?

    I find the question interesting, since I spend time trying to help my students find their connections to the past and I do tend to do it through the “here is where we are alike” move and also “here is the difference…”

  • Emily,
    I don’t want to hijack David’s post, so I’ll just say briefly that I think that socio-cultural structures affect our thinking at the most basic level, so that people in different periods experienced themselves and the world quite differently than we do today.

  • Sorry to have left so many comments hanging — today is the younger daughter’s birthday, and Daddy had to make a run to the big city (Chattanooga) to get stuff for the birthday dinner. Great discussion so far. Let me respond one comment at a time:

    Stuart, I’m sorry to say that I haven’t yet read Tim’s work, and I haven’t yet seen Inglorious Basterds, although I intend to do both eventually. I have nothing against storytelling that takes historical reinterpretation to the Xtreme, but I don’t think I would ever write it myself. Maybe it’s the Ph.D. talking, but I feel that our past is something that deserves respect and needs to be treated gently. As a historian, I believe that there is much to be learned from history — there are lessons there that need to be heeded. And I think that messing with it too much is dangerous. Obviously, if Harry Turtledove wants to give machine guns to the Confederacy, he’s free to do so. And I’m free not to read it. But where do we draw the line? How far do we have to travel before we’re reading books that make a believable fiction of Holocaust denial? Now, just to be clear, I know and like Harry, and he would never make such a leap. Most authors wouldn’t. But some might, and that would strike me as going too far. For my art, I prefer to err on the side of gentle use. I know, though, that many fine writers and artists would take a different approach.

    Thanks, Jagi. As you can tell from my response to Stuart’s comment, I tend to agree with you.

    Saladin, this is a great comment, and it raises an interesting point. As I say to Stuart, I come to this with a longstanding interest, and strong academic background in history. I think that in a way the distinction you draw comes down to separating history from historical mythology. I am drawn to using the former in my books; I’m drawn to exploding the latter. When I write about history from a fictional perspective, I tend to approach my subject matter as an academic. For my series on Colonial Boston, I am drawing on literally dozens of sources — some web based, some monographs, some first hand accounts. And, as I did when a grad student, I try to distill from all my sources some sense of alloyed “truth” even though I know that absolute truth is impossible. If I was writing Teddy Roosevelt, I probably wouldn’t be quite as harsh in my assessment as you were, but I wouldn’t be writing the Robin-Williams-in-Night-at-the-Museum version either. With Rosa Parks, the mythology is more clearly debunked by scholarship, and I would portray her as the savvy activist she was. I agree with your larger point in part — history itself is another cultural construct, and perhaps we owe it less than my post suggests. But I also believe that there are historical truths out there, that I can read enough to form a portrait of Samuel Adams that conforms to something approaching accuracy. And that I am then bound to treat that portrait with some care, and respect the man’s life.

    More coming…..

  • Emily and A.J., thanks for the thought-provoking comments. The “Human Condition” debate continues. Let me approach it this way. I think that when one reads the plays of Shakespeare, or the poems of Milton, or the personal letters of John Adams and Sam Adams and Thomas Jefferson, one sees a world that is different from our own to be sure, but certainly recognizable. Some things change — manner of speech, technology, general living conditions, belief systems, political systems; I’m leaving out many, but you get my point. And these differences can have enormous consequences. My children can hardly imagine a world without the internet; you and I can hardly imagine a world without space travel; the generation behind us could hardly imagine the world without air travel. And so it goes backward through time. When the very assumptions of existence change, when language is remade, when the life and death struggles of one generation become the givens of another, it is easy to imagine that life at one end of historical knowledge would bear little resemblance to life at the other end. But there are threads that run through it all; commonalities that cannot be ignored. The horror of war, the joys of love and family, the pain of death. These we share with those living in another time. More, there are generations to link the differences. We bridge the gap between our children who can’t live without Facebook, and our parents who can’t wrap their heads around it. My grandmother talked to me about the invention of the airplane (she was born in 1891), and she told me stories of the first time her mother saw a car. We speak to one another across generations with informal oral history. And finally, I would agree with you, A.J., when you say “socio-cultural structures affect our thinking at the most basic level” but I would add that really those structures are more static than you make them out to be. Again I come back to what I’ve said to you before: How can a man who knows and loves Shakespeare as you do fail to see that his world, his life experience, his concerns were not so very far from our own? Change? Absolutely. But constants as well.

  • David, I am slow arriving here today. Great post and comments! And because I am perpetually contrary, I’d like to join in on the AJ / David discussion.

    David quoted AJ and replied thusly: >>”socio-cultural structures affect our thinking at the most basic level” but I would add that really those structures are more static than you make them out to be.

    I posit that the differences in the human condition and human thought patterns through the ages are far greater than we imagine, taking into account what happens at the genetic level over time. Our bodies evolve when we change how we eat, through the stresses we are subjected to, the changes in exercise patterns, through, well, modern, daily living. Our genes actually *kick on* and *kick off* making us feel, think, look, act differently. When an entire society changes these things, the differences might go deep. Perhaps as deep as the way the human mind and human emotions work. Such genetic changes might make us *very* different from one another and from our ancestors, and not just on a societal, experiential level, but in the way we react to life, emotional stimulation, challenge, family, war, peace, religion … everything.

  • Interesting, Faith. This is one of those times when I’d love to involve Nancy in the discussion and get her perspective as a biologist on all of this. Because she’s not busy enough with her own work. I’m not a doctor, and I don’t have your background to draw upon, so I’m willing to admit that you might very well be right about this, and that I’m completely wrong. But I would point out that there are cultures in our modern world — aboriginal cultures in South and Central America, indigenous cultures of Asia and Africa — that have little or no contact with modern society as we know it, that are in many respects farther from our culture than European cultures dating back to the 10th century. And while there are stark differences between their lives and ours, there are also amazing similarities in how they deal with family, with love and death and survival. In short, there is some evidence in our modern world to suggest that there are cross-cultural universalities that would withstand the tests of nutrition and lifestyle and culture that you mention.

    In any case, this is a very interesting discussion and I’m grateful to all who are participating.

  • Hmmm. This is fodder for a longer post (and at very least several beers at the next Con) but I’m not persuaded. To take a couple of examples you cited, love and technology. With regard to the former, I find it hard to believe that there’s much continuity between current US ideas of love and Shakespeare’s, though I think we can make those connections ourselves by analogy. How does a culture that thinks it’s immoral to have women on stage think about the relations between the sexes? We don’t need go back anywhere near that far to see that the assumptions of intimacy most of us bring to marriage were quite different only a couple of generations ago.

    And yes, technology changes us but it’s not just about what we consider normal. My college students have totally different notions of friendship and privacy than I had as an undergraduate which are, I suspect, at least in part outgrowths of their technological spohistication. Not better or worse: different.

    I can’t speak to how social change alters the way our brains work physiologically but I can say–for example– that the fact that all people eat creates surprisngly little in terms of common experience. Hunger for most middle class Americans means opening the fridge or swinging by McDonalds. Again, we don’t have to look at how food was produced and distributed in the middle ages to see difference. I grew up in Britain when the national diet was still shaped by post war privation and the limitation of resources. To this day my upbringing shapes my experience of food.

    In short, I don’t doubt that we can make connections to people in different times and cultures or that some generalized commonalities exist, but I think the specifics point up significant differences that speak far more essentially to who (and they) are than do the similarities.

    We should definitely take this further over a pint…

  • Yeah, we’ll have to agree to disagree, and to discuss further in person. And I’ll look forward to the conversation. At the risk of making of our exchange a microcosm of the issue, I wonder how much of this comes down to what we choose to privilege in our own thinking. We both acknowledge commonalities, we both acknowledge differences. But one of us puts more emphasis on the former, the other on the latter….

  • True. We’ll drink to the difference in emphasis.

  • So…you’ll both see a glass (of something lovely) half full, but different kinds of glasses? (scratches head)
    I’m just gonna kill off a character and order a beer.

  • “I’m just gonna kill off a character and order a beer.”

    Brilliant! I think I will, too…..

  • David said, We can make historical figures our own for the purposes of a story, or a book, or even a series. But we have to keep in mind that this person is on loan and that eventually we are going to return him or her to the public domain.

    This is one of the things Tim Powers does so brilliantly. He’s written about Lord Byron, John Keats, Blackbeard, Thomas Edison, Kim Philby and many more historical figures, and even though he does his homework and sticks with the facts, he manages to express much of what they said and did in terms of the possible secretly magic goals that history wouldn’t have recorded. He’s great fun to read.

  • Faith said, I’m just gonna kill off a character and order a beer.

    Ooh, I’ll have a cider, thanks!

  • He does, Misty. I’ve only read one of his books, but was blown away by the way he tied in the historical.

  • It was neat that you opened with Eleanor, because she was one of my heroes as a kid. Right about the same time I was madly in love with Robin Hood. I’ve been trying to be very careful not to become a serious fangirl over the novelization you just finished. *grin*

  • See, I NEED fangirls. I hardly have any…. Eleanor of Aquitaine is one of the coolest characters I’ve ever had the chance to write.

  • Great post and discussion. I’ve been having problems commenting on this post, so here goes another try.

    I’m curious about, David, is your preference regarding readily available historical data of latter periods vs the ability to exercise creative freedoms of older periods. How does this influence your preference of period? Have you thought much about writing anything ancient?

    Personally, I’ve always been a fan of Arthurian Lore, the crusades, classical Greece, and ancient Mesopotamia. If I were to pick a period to write about, I’d probably choose the latter, mainly because the first ones are written about so frequently. Though I would be willing to write a yarn on the disappearance of the Mycenaean people.


  • In choosing the latter, I suppose I should clarify, I meant the ancient periods.

  • Thanks for the comments, Dave. Glad to see you were finally able to break down the gremlins and get your comments to post. This is my first historical project, so I can hardly claim to have tendencies in this field. I chose Colonial Boston because a) I already had the Thieftaker concept worked out, and Thieftaking was something that was basically limited to the 18th century (some in the late 17th, some in the early 19th — but 18th century was the height of it); b) I didn’t want to set my books in London, which was the other obvious choice, for the simple reason that SO much fantasy is already set there; and c) my Ph.D. is in U.S. History, and while I didn’t concentrate in Colonial/Revolutionary, the period always fascinated me. This is not to say that I wouldn’t be drawn to doing something in a more ancient setting at a later date, but I do like the fact that sources are readily available for the period in which I’m working. That said, I enjoyed the Robin Hood work, which had me doing research on the Crusades era.

    Basically, the short answer is this: I’ll go where the story takes me. In this case, 1765 Boston. Next time, who knows?

  • What you need to do is learn about the period skills, there is nothing worse than reading about someone doing something that I know can’t be done!!!
    There are plenty of Living Historians and experimental archaeologists out there like me who I am sure would only be too pleased to advise if you ever have a need. Knowing how a skill works such as using a tinderbox for instance can actually play a major part in the outcome of a scenario, you can make things happen by knowing what works and what does not.
    Regards, Le Loup.