Writing Inspiration from History: Character


That was me hitting the next wall. I made quite a dent, but couldn’t make it all the way through.

In case you missed it, this post is a continuation of a series on overcoming writer’s block. Part One was all about setting and action. This post focuses on how to use a little historical research to create characters that leap off the page.

The great thing about characters is that you are not necessarily limited to your story’s time period. People of all types lived during all ages. That doesn’t mean you should write a strident suffragette into your ancient Greek mystery (though Aristophanes came close in Lysistrata), but you can modify any personality type to fit in during any period with a little tailoring. Here are some ways of finding the bare bones of your character’s makeup:

1. Find an inspirational figure and cut out the ‘greatness’

Imagine what Henry VIII would be like as a tenant farmer. Obstinate, going through wives in the village and leaving a trail of motherless children in his wake. Wait – don’t imagine that, I’m going to use it!

But putting someone who did extraordinary things into a more mundane situation may be a way of finding a compelling character. Just be sure to make the details appropriate to the setting.

2. Find a person in the shadows of an important figure

I recently read a Wikipedia entry on Cynane, a half-sister to Alexander the Great. (Yes I know, the devil lives on a steady diet of Wikipedia articles! More on that later). At some point I certainly must have known that Alexander had siblings, but his ‘greatness’ pushed it right out of my mind. Now, being Wikipedia, I don’t know how much of this is true:

Polyaenus writes, “Cynane, the daughter of Philip was famous for her military knowledge: she conducted armies, and in the field charged at the head of them. In an engagement with the Illyrians, she with her own hand slew Caeria their queen; and with great slaughter defeated the Illyrian army.”

But Cynane’s story certainly got my creative juices flowing.

3. Look at paintings and statues

I love this face:

Roman bust

There’s something so honest about his expression and flaws. Statues and paintings (like photos of celebrities) can help you visualize the character. With visualization comes personality. Missing limbs indicate past illness or conflict, and have an effect on how the person lives their life today (such as ye’ ol’ peg-legged pirate).

Scars and birthmarks affect how others see your character. A person could be too large or too small for certain endeavors, from not being able to reach a cookie-jar, to being too large for a bunk on a sailing ship. Our bodies can shape who we become or, alternately, give wrong signals about who we are.

4. Read first-hand accounts

Going back to the sources is always an eye-opener, even if you’ve been researching for a while. Look for the character of the author, which is often revealed in their opinions on the people they write about, more so than any conscious effort on their part. Alternately, look for the characters the author has singled out. Both friend and foe. Imagine the ‘other side of the story’ the author presents.

For example, Gerald of Wales (c. 1146 – c. 1223) wrote a completely biased account of his homeland, The Description of Wales, were he says of the Welsh people:

These people being of a sharp and acute intellect, and gifted with a rich and powerful understanding, excel in whatever studies they pursue, and are more quick and cunning than the other inhabitants of a western clime.

So you can imagine how he would write a Welsh character compared to say, a Norse character (who would naturally be ‘slower’ and ‘less cunning’!).

There you have it, a few ways to find new depth for your historical characters. I hope you find these to be useful – as always, any comments you would like to make are to the benefit of the greater good!

Here’s to blasting through that wall.

Image of Roman bust by Benjamin Asmussen (CC)

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