Tuesday, August 13, 2013

How to Truly Understand Your Historical Characters

Last night, I had a terrible dream. I was at the HNS Conference and found out I had to present a panel that I had completely forgotten about. Frantically I tried to come up with something worth talking about, but by the time I had put it all together, my time was over and everyone left in disgust. Marci Jefferson, one of the nicest people I know, agreed to stay and miss dinner so I could at least present to someone.

I woke up and realized the dream panel I had put together wasn't half bad, so now I'm turning it into a blog article. 

How to Truly Understand Your Historical Characters

When you write history, you can't take anything for granted. All your characters' attributes have to be genuine to the time period; otherwise you end up with a modern hero in an old setting.

Below is a list of what I consider to be fundamentally important in understanding your character. You'll notice I didn't include certain things you might expect, like fashion, hobbies, and entertainment. I feel that while those things are important for establishing a setting, they don't affect the core of a person's being. My clothes tell you a lot about who I am, but I could completely change my wardrobe and still be the same person.


I never liked my history classes in school, but I loved my art history class. Instead of rehearsing dates and who did what when, art history is all about the why. Why did so many people choose the same subject at a certain time? Why did it matter to them?

If you can understand the art of your time period (even if your character doesn't like art), you can understand what was important to people back then. For instance, today we care mostly about the ambience of a room. If you go into a home decor store, you'll find pictures of simple, unassuming things like flowers, trees, landscapes, animals, nonsense colors -- anything that looks pretty but doesn't make a statement.

In ancient Rome where my novel SACRED FIRE takes place, art was abundant and much more meaningful. Statues were just about everywhere you looked. Every wall was covered in a mural, every floor designed in a mosaic, and all of it told a story, mostly of gods, legends, or historical giants. Even their dishes were decorated with stories. Those stories tells me a lot about how the Romans thought and what they cared about.


Obviously, we need to understand a character's history if we're going to write a historical fiction. But! Our understanding of history will always be different from our characters'. We have the gift of hindsight. 

We know who the bad guys turn out to be, which brilliant ideas go terribly wrong, who wins and who loses. We don't have the same hope, despair, and innocence that our characters have. For instance, someone living post WWI will have a very different view of Germany than someone living post WWII. SACRED FIRE takes place during the Second Punic War, and even though I know Rome triumphs in the end, the people living at the time all thought they were going to die.

You can't just understand the history surrounding your character; you have to understand how history appears at that exact moment in time.

Current Events

World events affect me, even though I might not think of them. If someone were to write a biography about me they probably wouldn't dedicate a chapter to 9-11 even though it was a big event in my history, but my biographer ought to know I'm worried about terrorists, shootings, health care, abductions, etc. 

In The Heretic's Wife, a novel about the Salem Witch Trials, one of the main characters is terrified of Native Americans invading her home. It might not be important to the story, but it's important to who she is and how she lives her life. 

Code of Conduct

We all have ideas of what we can and can't do around other people, and these ideas differ widely throughout history. In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett is burdened by so many ridiculous restrictions that she can't be happy. She can't eat too much in public, she has to wear black for years after her husband dies, she can't let people see her when she's pregnant, she even discovers Rhett Butler is sleeping with prostitutes but can't confront him about it because she wouldn't dare admit to knowing prostitutes exist.

We might think our time period is liberated from such restrictions of etiquette, but even if we're more flexible, our restrictions exist. My mother-in-law, for instance, wouldn't dream of returning an item of clothing in any bag besides what it came in, especially if the bag is from a cheaper store. She'll tear the house apart looking for a Nordstrom's bag rather than take clothes back in a Walmart bag. My parents argued constantly over proper codes of conduct because my mom was always coming up with ideas of what just "isn't done" that my dad disagreed with.

What do people expect of your character? What does your character expect of others? What happens in your time period when people do the unexpected?


You can't fully understand someone without understanding that person's spiritual beliefs. A person's religion is about much more than how he spends his Sunday afternoons; religion determines a person's perspective on the purpose of life and the value of human beings. It is the motivation behind many of our actions.

Buddhists, for example, have a very pessimistic view of life. They believe existence is about suffering and that true joy comes from attaining a state of almost non-existence called Enlightenment. Mormons, on the other hand, believe the purpose of being on the earth is to find joy in this life and that God is intimately aware of and willing to help with even the simplest of struggles. A Buddhist's motivation is very different from a Mormon's.


I didn't understand how rich with meaning language can be until I studied Shakespeare in college. As much as I love Shakespeare, he's frustrating; you have to study for a lifetime to even understand what he's talking about. His work is full of figures of speech, political jokes, historical references, old vocabulary, and even household items we've never heard of. Even if you have a phD in Elizabethan history, you can never understand Shakespeare as well as his original audience did.

That's one thing I hate about historical fiction; the language can never be as rich as regular fiction. You can't spend years researching exactly how people spoke because your readers haven't done the research so they wouldn't understand it anyway. Your characters have to talk like us, but not seem like they're talking like us.

It's a dilemma, but an important one to resolve. Language isn't just about accents and unusual grammar; it's about what your character finds important, how he expresses himself, how he makes sense of the world. You can never be perfectly accurate with language because it will make the text unpalatable, but you can use language to understand your character.

Moral Code

This is perhaps the most important, and the most often overlooked. Your characters do not have the same moral code that you and I do. They might be racist, intolerant of other religions, unsympathetic to slaves, and yet somehow still be good people.

In Lonesome Dove, for instance, all the cowboys saw prostitutes on a regular basis. They had no reason not to. In The Queen's Vow, Isabella of Castille had a moral code I know for a fact the author disagreed with (including homophobia and anti-semitism), yet she's the heroine of the novel. These authors decided to be accurate instead of comfortable, and it adds great richness to the text.

The sad truth is most of us believe what society tells us. We may have differing opinions, but all the same, our point of view is built up from an intricate system of experiences. People very rarely have revolutionary ideas of morality that go outside of their experience. If your character is pre Civil War Southern and she refuses to own slaves, you better have a good reason for her to feel that way.

What tools do you use to help you understand your characters?

1 comment:

  1. This is an EXCELLENT list! I had never thought about studying the art of a time period to really get a sense of who these people were. (And since I had a class in art history in college, I'm wondering why I never bothered to use that knowledge in my fiction writing!).


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