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Building a Character on Top of a Historical Figure

This article was first published on the SheWrites Blog, June 27, 2018

I’ve always been at my most creative when I have to work within structural confines, whether it be an extensive outline for a novel, or creating a character based upon someone in history. Within those structural walls, my mind is free to roam, without getting lost in all the noise outside.

As writers of historical fiction, we will never really know what was going on in the minds or emotions of the people in history we want to portray. We see them through their actions, what they’ve written, or what they’ve reportedly said, but we don’t always know their deepest fears, or what they secretly wanted in life. We don’t always know their unrequited loves, their biggest regrets, or their pet peeves—unless it was written down. And even that can be up for interpretation because we can never really be inside the mind of anyone, much less a historical figure. Even non-fiction historical accounts can be skewed because every writer has a personal bias. They put their perceptions and interpretations onto the page. It’s human nature.

But, interpretation can open the doors to a whole new kind of creativity.

When I use a historical figure in fiction, I do extensive research to know as much about that person as I can. I read books and articles on them, and I watch television shows, documentaries or movies featuring that person. I make notes on what I think is most interesting about them and what is portrayed about their life. Then I start exploring what that person must have been going through psychologically at any given event or circumstance.

I try to put myself in that person’s shoes and wonder how they felt about what was happening to them. I also like to create a new reality for them, and then based on what I know about that historical figure, I imagine how they would react to the situation I have created for them.

Some of my favorite books feature historical figures as amateur sleuths. The author has, within the confines of history as we know it, put that character in charge of solving a puzzle the author has created. The author uses what they know about that historical figure’s personality and the events that surrounded them, and then they create a mystery within those confines for the character to solve. What a great way to delve into the heart and soul of a person!

Some of my favorites have been Stephanie Barron’s series featuring Jane Austen as an amateur sleuth, and Karen Harper’s series featuring Queen Elizabeth I as an amateur sleuth. It was great fun to sink myself into the world of the historical figure I knew through stories and my own research, combined with situations created by a present-day author. I found it inspiring.

photo Annie OakleyIn my historical series, I’ve used the famous and iconic figure Annie Oakley as an amateur sleuth and put her into situations she never encountered in real life. It was interesting and exciting to imagine how she would have reacted to being compelled to solve murders. I took what I knew about her, and surmised that she was gutsy, smart, lovable and loving, and incredibly talented at something a woman rarely pursued—sharpshooting. She also bested most men in her field.

Annie Oakley did not live the life of an ordinary woman in 1885. Given the scope of the Wild West Show’s travels, and what Annie did for a living, I thought she would make an excellent amateur detective. One who is driven by seeking the truth and finding justice.

The key is to be as accurate as possible given the information you have, and most importantly, to make your historical and fictional story believable.You wouldn’t make King Henry the VIII a pacifist or monogamous, or Fanny Brice dull or somber. Readers won’t buy it. Be smart about it.

If you want to assert in your historical fiction novel or series that a historical figure can act like, or be something history did not record, make sure you do your research to see if the historical accounts of him or her support that idea. Then, dive deep into what you think that person is about, and what drove them. Let your imagination go.

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