Guest Post–Seven Tips to Create Memorable Historical Fiction Characters

Goodbye EmilyHere’s a great guest post from Michael Murphy with tips for creating memorable characters in historical fiction. Michael is the author of the novel Goodbye Emily. His piece also appears in the Winter 2014 edition of The Copperfield Review.

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In historical fiction, creating realistic and memorable characters can present challenges not faced in other genres. Characters, like real people, are shaped by many factors, culture, heritage, religion, physical characteristics, birth order and life events. Memorable characters rebel at some of these influences. A classic example is Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Her rebellion from southern culture, Irish heritage and what is expected from a proper southern belle makes her one of the most memorable historical fiction characters ever.

I often turn to other writers for help and guidance. Therefore, with two historical mysteries that will be released by Random House Alibi later this year, I’ve come up with seven tips to create realistic and memorable characters.

  1. Character study. Get to know your characters before you begin your manuscript. Drafting a detailed character study is a valuable tool in any genre. Write one for each primary and key secondary character, addressing the character’s culture, family, physical characteristics and what has led to that character rebelling against them. Another important area to address is the change your character will go through during the story.
  2. Conflict. Enhance your character through physical, personal and professional obstacles to overcome. Let the era you’re writing about provide the conflict.
  3. Nobody’s perfect. Authors often hesitate to give their favorite characters flaws, or despicable characters redeeming traits. No one is one hundred percent good or bad. If your protagonist is ninety percent heroic, it’s the ten percent that will give him or her depth and leave lasting impressions with your readers.
  4. Historical figures. Historical fiction provides opportunities lacking in other genres. Consider ways for your characters to interact with readily identifiable historical figures. Their interaction with those larger than life characters will enhance your story and their characterization. In my historical mystery set in 1933 New York, my characters encounter Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, Cole Porter, Babe Ruth, Joseph Kennedy and more.
  5. Attention to detail. Historical fiction writers are excellent at creating vivid settings with attention to detail. Make sure your characters benefit from the same detailed research that make your scenes so clear to the reader. And avoid clichés. How do your characters feel and react to the choking smoke of a locomotive, or the salty spray of an ocean voyage? What do your characters wear and more importantly, why do they wear them?
  6. Behavioral traits. As you would in writing any genre, give your characters memorable, if not quirky behavior and traits.  Show them displaying mannerisms that make them unique. One might chew tobacco, or comb their hair at inopportune times. Give your characters identifiable quirks and mannerisms, just like real people.
  7. Humor. Historical fiction devoid of humor can result in a novel appearing dull and listless. Life is full of humor, embrace it and utilize your sense of humor in your characters. If you’re not experienced at writing humor remember, like drama, humor is driven by conflict. Drama or humor often comes from a character’s reaction to a scene’s conflict. A suspected haunted house, for example can be chilling or hysterical depending on your character’s reaction.

We write and read historical fiction for the opportunity to join vivid characters in past cultures and historical events. I hope these seven tips help make your journey easier and your characters more memorable.

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Michael MurphyMichael Murphy is a full time writer in Arizona. He’s been writing novels for the past fifteen years. His most recent novel, Goodbye Emily, journeyed back to Woodstock. In August, Random House Alibi will release the historical mystery, The Yankee Club, Murphy’s ninth published novel. Coming next January is the second in the series, All That Glitters.

Murphy’s website www.mjmurphy.com

Goodbye Emily www.goodbyeemily.com

Murphy’s Mystery and History blog: http://blog.mjmurphy.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/mmurfy68

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mmurfy86

5 thoughts on “Guest Post–Seven Tips to Create Memorable Historical Fiction Characters

  1. I think that’s quite natural. I’ve been working with my characters for six years and they are all different from when they started. Some of them are ‘completely’ different.
    But I like dossiers because you can update them. I actually do it a lot. When I sense that a character has change, I like to rewrite their dossiers, so to pin down what’s the same and what’s changed.
    I also use characters’ synopsis extencively, both for exploring the characters and the plo

  2. I agree–the dossiers are a lot of fun to write. And yet I find that my vision of the characters may change as I get deeper into the writing process. For my last novel, one character completely changed from what I thought he would be! So I enjoy having a plan, but I also like leaving room for changes as they become necessary.

  3. Great article 🙂

    Writing characters’ dossiers is possibly the most fun in creating a story, at lest for me. I always discover lots of things from those dossiers.
    And details… details are hell, but they are what let a story (especially an historical story) to life.

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