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 http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://magicalwords.net