Ten Tips on Breathing Life into Historical Characters


17 February 2023
Leading historical novelist Anne O'Brien shares her best advice on making characters from the past relatable to modern readers

You have decided to write about vibrant and exciting characters in history.  

How do you bring them to real life so that your readers have no choice but to keep turning the pages, following their story? Even though your readers may know what happens next - since it is history - your characters must make compulsive reading.

I write about medieval women, women who existed, usually from the aristocracy or the royals, who were involved in historical events and would have something to say about them. History gives women short shrift, since it was invariably recorded by men for men. Women, unless they were very high profile, played little part in the dynamic events of their lifetime, or so we are led to believe. History dismisses them as two-dimensional figures. It is my pleasure to bring them back to centre stage and allow them to speak for themselves.  

All my thoughts on bringing medieval women back to life can equally be used for men of course, and we know so much more about them. Here is what works for me to give medieval women an appearance, an impact, and a voice, so that through the novel they become unforgettable.

1. Choose a woman with an interesting hinterland. 

There must be something exciting or dangerous or problematic with which she can interact. It may not be a major happening in history, but her life-span must offer conflict, and it must offer more than mere romance. If her life is too placid, too uninvolved, that of merely on onlooker, a reporter on events, the reader will not be drawn into the story. This is the first choice you must make; a character who has the depth of involvement that you can enjoy restoring to life.

2. Your protagonist must have some dynamic people with whom she can play out her role and who can bring complexities to the story. 

They may be family, casual connections, or members of the Court. These are the people who will allow your main protagonist to develop her own character and tell the story. Saying that, it is important to keep the number of supplementary characters in check. Too many can over-complicate the story. If they don't have a definite part to play, or if they have nothing to add to the plot, leave them out. Sad, but sometime essential.

3. Decide how you wish to place your protagonist in the historic scene. 

I write in the first person because it gives immediacy and a very personal and often emotional take on what is happening. It has its drawbacks, because events outside the character's remit can not be included except by a report. Writing in the third person is fine. Make your own choice, but beware of too many different points of view. Centre the action on your main character. Her view, her reaction, her opinions.

4. Your character must be appealing to the reader. 

She need not be always likeable, her actions may not always be admirable, but the reader must understand and accept the reasoning behind her actions. Don’t be afraid of developing an intricate character with both attractive and discreditable aspects. Your reader is allowed to dislike them, but perhaps give them some redeeming features by the end. Few people are perfect!   

5. Can your readers imagine your main protagonist in every scene?

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What does she wear? What does she look like? What are her skills and interests outside the line of the story? She is a real person. What does she do with her time while the story around her unfolds? Use your imagination when you are joining the main dots. These women were, I am quite certain, articulate, often intelligent, possible educated, and interested in political events. They would do far more in their lives than merely sit in their solar, stitch altar cloths, sing romantic ballads, and gossip with their ladies, while their husbands went off to war, fought in tournaments or became engaged in the stresses and strains of high politics. I am sure that they had opinions of what went on. I am sure that they whispered in their husband's ear when he came home. Some light relief, even laughter, is often needed to enhance the powerful drive of the main plot, so a personal life is important, but don’t lose the sight of the end of your story.

6. Conversation. For me, this is the main element of making a character come alive. What do the people in your story say to each other? How do they speak? This should be your main consideration. Do not always report on what they do. Show it through conversation – in planning or in consequences. Use dialogue to develop relationships and emotions. Conversation can be just as dynamic and exciting, and often far more revealing, than a battle scene.  

7. There must be tension! 

And action. There must be drama in your protagonist's life. There must be joy and heartbreak, fear and success, laughter and tears. Pull at the reader's heartstrings, so that they cannot stop until they reach the end of a chapter. Then they must feel compelled to start the next. Consider the start of your chapters. Long descriptions of the weather or the scenery detract from what your character is doing at that moment. Your character must be involved to lure the reader on.

9. Bring your main protagonist to the forefront. 

Get inside her head. Sometimes it is not a bad idea to write the end of the story first to discover where your character will end up. You can always review it later if it changes. And always remember. It does not have to end on a happy note. People die. People are stricken with grief. It is quite acceptable for you to leave your reader with a tear in the eye.

10. Most importantly. Be light with the facts of history. 

The historical detail is essential but has a supportive role to the tale. Do not allow it to take over so that your character is overwhelmed by the historical comings and goings of a battle or a political dispute. Do not swamp the tale or your characters with pages of historical description. Character first, history second. And of course make sure that your history is accurate!

Finally, to pull all my thoughts together: first and foremost I would advise any writer of historical fiction to allow your characters to talk. To their contemporaries. To their friends.To their enemies. Particularly to you. So many emotions and traits of character become clear through conversation. If you are unsure of their reactions, leave it for a few days until you hear their conversations in your head as you continue to write. Then you can go back and edit the problem event. You might even discover layers within your character that you had never dreamed of.  

Enjoy these people of history as they step out onto the stage which you have created. Enjoy putting flesh and garments on these medieval skeletons. Celebrate and mourn with them, and so will your readers.

A Marriage of Fortune by Anne O'Brien is published by Orion Fiction in hardback at £14.99


Read more expert advice on writing historical fiction from the best authors in the genre with these top tips from Alison Weir.

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