Creating Historical Fiction Characters That Are Timeless
Historical fiction writers work their driven little tails off to give their readers something invaluable:
An engaging story that creates a deeply human connection between past and present.
“Human” is the operative word here, which means your job as a historical fiction author is to create characters that bring the past to life for your readers.
But what does that actually mean? And is creating characters in this genre really any different from creating them in any other genre?
Don’t stress; explanations are coming your way right now. You’ll learn:
- How to apply historical context to character development
- Steps for ensuring your characters are authentic and dynamic
- How to choose interesting traits that fit your historical setting
- The trick to developing believable relationships and dialogue
Whatever confusion you’re experiencing around this topic, get ready to leave it in the past.
Researching Historical Context
It doesn’t matter whether a character lives in the past, present, or future—a writer has to consider how the world they live in shapes who they are.
This presents a unique challenge for the historical fiction author, as your protagonist’s world is both real—which means you’ll be held accountable for historical accuracy—and in the past—which means you can’t experience it for yourself. (I assume. I don’t really know your life or whether you have access to time-travel technology.)
So you’re going to have to do some research. Let’s talk about how to do that and why it’s so important.
Why Historical Fiction is Popular and Challenging
Like readers of any other genre, historical fiction fans want complex characters who make bold choices and face seemingly insurmountable conflicts. They also hope to be transported into worlds they can’t physically access themselves.
This genre gives readers a chance to understand history on a deeper, more human level. It offers new perspectives on historical events that only get a couple paragraphs in high school textbooks. Historical fiction invites us to see the similarities between our present and our ancestors’ past.
And all of that happens because of well-written characters.
Your job when writing historical fiction is to create human beings that resonate with modern readers while reflecting the culture and conflicts of your novel’s time period.
What Should You Know About Your Characters’ Context
So what aspects of your novel’s historical context matter the most in character development?
In The Sympathizer, the protagonist’s political context is everything. He’s a half-Vietnamese, half-French communist double agent navigating the U.S. after the Fall of Saigon. Politics influences everything from the way he does his job to his sense of identity.
But even if your protagonist doesn’t work in government, they still exist under a political system. That system influences things like:
- Their own sense of power
- Conflict within their community or relationships
- Values that have been ingrained in them by those in power
- Their sense of responsibility to others
- Their sense of security
- The way they imagine the future
When looking at the social context of your historical novel, think about things like:
- What was the dominant religion in this time and place? How do your characters relate to it?
- Is there anything about your characters’ lives that would be considered taboo?
- What actions or values would earn them praise and admiration?
- How would friends and family socialize?
- Were there any hobbies, celebrations, or customs that defined this time period?
There are, of course, a million more things you could ask about your characters’ social and cultural context. No matter how much research you do upfront, you’re sure to run into more questions as you write. Plan to research as you go.
Technology isn’t just part of the physical setting; it’s a clue to your character’s expectations. How do they define possible versus impossible? Easy versus hard? Science versus magic? Astounding versus whatevs?
This is valuable insight.
Bonus: the more you know about the technology of the time period, the likelier you are to avoid eye-rolling book reviews about your anachronistic use of a hand-crank pencil sharpener in 1893 (because it wasn’t invented until a year later by John Lee Love in Fall River, Massachusetts).
What music does your protagonist listen to? How do they dress and what do they do for fun? Are you familiar with the slang of the time period? What about entertainment? Are they going to movies, plays, or chariot races?
This information helps you fill in the daily lives of your novel’s inhabitants. It’s also another window into the perspectives and values that shape their world.
How to Research All That
So how do you gather all this historical context?
We actually have a step-by-step guide to researching historical fiction. The short version is this:
Search Google, the library, and museums. Look at old newspaper clippings, photographs, letters, and history books. Investigate both primary and secondary sources. Interview experts. If key historical sites are still standing and you can get to them, do it.
Historical fiction writers get to be detectives. Exhausting? Yes. Thrilling? Also yes.
Creating Authentic and Dynamic Characters in Historical Fiction
Now that you have a handle on the historical time period that shaped these characters, how do you infuse that context into their development? And how do you make sure they’re actually interesting and relatable—not just profiles of historical figures?
Let’s start by deciding which characters are made-up and which are real.
Researching Historical Fiction Characters: Fact vs. Fiction
If your historical fiction novel includes real historical figures, you’ve got options for tackling those characters.
Some historical fiction writers stay as close to the facts as they can. Others stick with most of the facts but stray into fiction when it serves the plot, themes, or characterization.
There’s even an option to create composite characters—fictional characters who are a blend of multiple historical figures. (Historical fiction authors often opt to do this with a supporting character rather than a protagonist.)
The advantage of working with real people is that there’s already material to jumpstart your character-creation process. You might be able to find physical descriptions of the real-life person, accounts of events in their life, and letters or speeches written in their own voice.
Even if you plan to deviate from the truth, learn everything you can about the historical figures in your story. When you have the full picture of who they were, you can make smarter choices about which facts matter to your story and which can be tweaked.
And what about your fully fictional characters—the ones who’ve only ever existed in your own head?
Research people like them. Look for photographs, diaries, or anecdotes about real people who lived similar lives. That could include someone from the time period who was in the same social class, lived in the same city, practiced the same religion… whatever helps you understand how this person would live and think.
Avoiding Stereotypes and Assumptions
When writing historical fiction, it’s important to be aware of all the assumptions pop culture has already baked into your brain.
In our lives, we consume all kinds of stories about the past. From books to movies and even commercials, history is constantly presented to us through someone else’s lens. That’s not inherently a bad thing. You do the same thing when you write historical fiction.
But it’s important to be aware that pop culture is riddled with stereotypes and lazy depictions that get stored away in our brains as truth. Question your own assumptions, research thoroughly, and work with cultural consultants when it makes sense.
Also remember that historical records carry their own biases. As you read any historical account, consider the source and ask yourself how their worldview might color the way they describe certain historical events or the people involved in those events.
Bottom line: do whatever it takes to make sure your fictional characters are multi-dimensional human beings. Try to understand how they’d see the world they’re in—not just how their world sees them.
Developing Character Traits and Motivation
When you write historical fiction characters, all the standard rules of character development apply. In fact, you can use every single article we’ve written on the subject to populate your historical novel with riveting individuals.
For now, let’s look at some key components when it comes to writing historical fiction characters specifically.
Voice and Appearance
Once again, you’ve got to do double duty as a historical fiction writer. You have to give your characters voices and appearances that telegraph who they are and the historical time period they live in.
When it comes to voice, consider things like:
- The words people used in those days, including slang
- How their culture, age, or social status might influence the way they talk
- Things they’d be likely to talk about
- Things they’d never discuss due to taboos or social norms
And those are just the historical considerations. You’ll also need to think about how your characters’ voices are unique within their world. If you’re writing about real historical figures, their own writings (assuming there are any) can give you some inspiration. You can also check out this guide to finding a character’s voice.
As for how they dress and style their hair, it’s not enough to research the fashions of the time period. You also want to consider:
- How they might dress for work
- What styles and materials they’d be able to afford
- Whether certain styles and materials were in vogue and available in their part of the world
- Which styles indicated status or invites judgment
For more on describing clothing in books, check out this article.
Goals and Motivations
Fictional characters—much like real people—always want something. Since your goal is to write historical fiction that readers can’t put down, you want to make sure your characters are chasing something that’s tough to get.
Those goals should also be backed by compelling motivations. Why do your characters want what they want? What past trauma or deep desire drives them? In their mind, what’s at risk if they fail to achieve their objective?
Once again, it’s your job to answer these questions while also considering the time period. By that I mean:
- Do your characters’ goals make sense in this historical setting?
- How does the time period influence the likelihood that they’ll reach their goals?
- Is there anything innovative or shocking about what they want to accomplish or who they want to become?
- How might the cultural or political realities of this historical setting motivate them? Do they have to be especially fearful of anything? Resistant to anything? Is the changing world opening their minds to new possibilities?
Remember that your realities are not your characters’ realities. When you take their unique challenges into account, you can open up fascinating motivations and seemingly insurmountable conflict.
Fears and Weaknesses
Also important (and you know where I’m going with this): how are these elements influenced by the historical time period?
They may not be! A person can be just as foolhardy in 1465 as they would be today. But they present these less-than-perfect traits in different ways depending on when they live. Not to mention, those around them might judge their behavior differently.
It’s also worth considering which shortcomings will have the greatest consequences in this time period. There’s a reason a lot of historical fiction heroines are headstrong, uncompromising, and outspoken. It’s because those used to be dangerous qualities for a woman to have, in terms of both social acceptance and survival.
Crafting Dialogue and Relationships
What about the ways in which your characters communicate and connect with one another? Crafting authentic relationships is tricky in any genre, as is creating compelling interpersonal conflict.
Let’s talk about how to master these skills in the specific context of historical fiction.
Establishing Power Dynamics
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we see power dynamics play out in every book we read.
Maybe the hero is a commoner rebelling against an authoritarian leader. Or the heroine holds tremendous political power but wants to join a community where she’s seen as naive and incapable.
Even the lovers in romance novels are constantly navigating their shifting power dynamics—or their perceived power dynamics, since they tend to each see themselves as the more vulnerable person in the relationship.
As you create the relationships in your historical fiction novel, make sure you consider any other dynamics specific to the time period. Ask yourself:
- Who holds the greater economic, political, and/or social power according to the standards of the time?
- How is power demonstrated and perceived in this historical setting?
- What would it take for powerless characters to gain dominance? Is it even possible?
- Do power imbalances place any boundaries on the relationships in the story?
When you have these answers, you’ll have an easier time figuring out this next element.
Internal and External Conflict
Not all of your characters' conflicts have to be with other characters. They can also be in conflict with political systems, devastating historical events, society, technology, or even the weather. It all depends on the story you’re telling.
Your job is to make sure your external conflict is compelling (this will help) and—you guessed it—makes sense for the time period.
In addition to battling the world outside them, your protagonist(s) and major secondary characters should also struggle with internal conflict.
The internal conflict in historical novels doesn’t have to reflect the historical context. But it’s worth considering how the time period might affect your characters’ sense of duty, morality, faith, etc.
You know—the things that tear us up inside because they’re frequently at odds with our desires.
Keeping It True to the Time Period
We already talked about finding your characters’ historically accurate voices. Now it’s time to think about how these people would speak to one another.
This consideration isn’t unique to historical novels. Even in our day to day lives, we’re constantly shifting our tone and diction depending on whether we’re speaking to a partner, boss, or cute little tiny baby puppy dog.
In your research, try to get a sense of how the people of the time period addressed one another across and within social and economic classes. How were children expected to speak to their elders and vice versa? What did flirting look like? What about code-switching?
When you can nail your characters’ voices and the ways they adapt those voices for different relationships, you can write excellent, authentic dialogue.
Examples of Successful Historical Fiction Novels and Their Characters
If you hope to write historical fiction successfully, you’ve got to read the great work that’s already out there. These novels in particular offer stellar examples of fascinating historical characters.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
A Gentleman in Moscow follows the story of an aristocrat under house arrest in a hotel during the Bolshevik Revolution.
While the historical events of the novel are real, Towles populates the world of the hotel with a cast of fictional characters from different backgrounds. This gives the reader a glimpse of the era’s several different social classes and ways of life all concentrated in one setting.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
In this historical fiction novel, a Korean family immigrates to Japan in the early part of the 20th century to escape the shame of an illegitimate pregnancy. You can already see why this is a great read for studying how social and political contexts can shape your characters’ perspectives and decisions.
Pachinko also spans decades in the same family, allowing you to see how Lee handles characterization from generation to generation.
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
The protagonist of The Red Tent is Dinah, an extremely minor character from the Bible. This historical novel takes on a couple interesting challenges.
For one, it dives into a time period far removed from our own. On top of that, it borrows from the Biblical narrative while focusing on the experiences of the women in the story—something the Bible isn’t exactly known for.
Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch by Rivka Galchen
Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch is based on the true story of Katharina Kepler and the 17th century Würzburg witch trials. But it’s a fictionalized account, and the author takes a few liberties when it comes to the actual events of Kepler’s life and the trials.
There are a lot of real historical figures in this book. Definitely one to check out if you want to explore the fictional characterization of real flesh-and-blood folks.
Keeping Track of All Your Great Character Ideas
Character creation is always a little messy. That goes triple when you add historical research into the mix. For tips on staying organized during the most chaotic inspiration storm, I recommend these articles:
- The Best Character Template Ever
- The Character Development Worksheet You’ve Been Looking For
- How to Write a Character Sketch That Works for You
- A Character Arc Template for Riveting Transformations
Also remember that you have the benefit of living in the present day. That is to say, you’ve got access to tech-forward tools that make writing historical fiction way easier.
If you haven’t tried Dabble yet, you absolutely should. Dabble is most famous for the Plot Grid that helps you organize your story, manage multiple plotlines, and keep scene cards close at hand while you write.
But did you know about Story Notes? This feature makes it easy to create customizable notes for all aspects of your novel, from character profiles to research to worldbuilding. Add links to resources, upload images, and more.
Best part is, you don’t have to risk a thing to check it out. Just grab your free trial at this link—no credit card needed.
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