How to Shape Characters in Historical Fiction

Shaping Historical vs. Fictional Characters

If you’re writing a historical fiction novel that features characters you made up out of whole cloth, congratulations! Your job is, paradoxically, a thousand times easier than writing about someone who actually existed. The reason for this is simple. Shaping a character arc for a fictional character in a historical fiction novel is exactly like shaping a character arc for any other character in any other genre. There are myriad resources out there for you.

But if the main character in your novel is an actual historical figure you’ve got two jobs to do, and almost no resources to guide you…except instinct, other historical authors and me! So what are the two jobs you have? In commercial fiction, almost every protagonist has an epiphany. That is to say, their experiences over the course of the book not only change them, but change their fundamental beliefs in some way. Or bring them to a new, and often profound, realization.

For my own heroine in the Nile series, Cleopatra Selene, the hard truths she had to swallow included the fact that she could only be free of the emperor Augustus if she gave up her claim to Egypt. It took her three books to really internalize that. And I chose that as the lesson she needed to learn precisely because the historic daughter of Cleopatra was unable to reclaim her mother’s throne. I could have made it a story about her profound failure–as she herself likely saw it. But that’s a pretty big bummer and readers tend to reject books that make them consider the futility of life. They often get angry when good doesn’t triumph over evil. In fact, 99% of commercial fiction involves a likable protagonist who finds a happy ending. And that’s a difficult hurdle when we’re working with history, in which many of the people we’re so fascinated by were despicable, or beheaded, lost their thrones, or otherwise failed in their ambitions.

Now, it’s perfectly possible to write great historical fiction with a downer of an ending. And certain historical figures require it. For example, everyone knows that Cleopatra committed suicide. But when Margaret George wrote about it in Memoirs of Cleopatra, she portrayed that suicide as an act of defiance. In other words, she re-defined the victory conditions for her character.

And that’s the way to do it. The trick is to shape a character arc that re-defines a happy or optimistic ending.

Choose an Ending Point

The first thing you need to decide is whether or not you’re covering a character’s entire life or a portion of it. For a long time, the historical fiction genre was dominated by long biographical life sketches. But sometimes taking a bite out of a person’s life is wiser. First, it cuts down on the number of years you have to cover and hopefully eliminates the need for a child narrator. Second, it allows you to allow your character to grow within the confines of a specific incident or set of incidents.

I remember reading Anne Easter Smith’s Daughter of York, which ends quite swooningly, with our heroine victoriously sailing off to be with the love of her life. It ends there, of course, because historically speaking, the love of her life was executed shortly thereafter. And if the author had kept going, it’d have been a different book entirely. One that ended in tragedy.

That said, this is a tricky technique to get away with. It’s more advisable to shape the struggle of a character within the book so that his or her tragic death can’t change it. Ie. Cleopatra’s suicide being defiance against an emperor she outsmarted in the end.

Where do I Start?

You begin–always–by asking yourself one big question: What does my character want?

All stories are really about a simple premise: someone wants something and something stands in the way of them getting it. Your story tells the reader how they either succeed or fail to get what they want. All things in a story flow from that. So, without further ado…

What Does My Character Want?

Sometimes history will dictate this to you. What does Thomas Jefferson want in America’s First Daughter? He wants to win the Revolutionary War. But that’s not all he wants.

Within the framework of historical fiction, you get to be very creative about the deep-seated and maybe secret desires at play. The one exception to this is Thomas Jefferson. That’s why I used him as an example. Because he’s so well-known, so loved, so hated, and so well-documented a historical figure that there’s literally no way to speculate about his private goals without courting criticism. My co-author and I trembled every time we put a word into Jefferson’s mouth that we couldn’t find in one of his letters. (Fortunately, he wrote a lot of letters.)

But most of you will be too wise to get anywhere near a figure like Thomas Jefferson. You’ll likely tackle ancient kings, or medieval queens, or 19th century gangsters. People whose lives are not known in such excruciating detail that you would have to defend every choice of inner thought you made. And that’s a good thing.

Because it means you can answer the question any way you want. What does my character want?

Your Character Should Want Something Worthy

Would you read a book about a guy who wants a ham sandwich? I wouldn’t. Readers want to know that the protagonist of your story wants something worth having. To help you think this through, here are some of the goals from my own books:

  • America’s First Daughter: Patsy Jefferson wants to protect her father’s legacy even if at cost of her soul
  • A Year of Ravens: Queen Cartimandua wants to spare her people the wrath of the Romans, even if it destroys her marriage
  • A Day of Fire: Prima wants to escape Pompeii to save her life and Capella wants to stay in Pompeii to change her life
  • The Princess of Egypt Must Die: Arsinoe II wants to survive the viper’s nest otherwise known as her family
  • Lily of the Nile: Cleopatra Selene Wants to Save Her Brothers from being killed by the Emperor when they turn fifteen, and are then considered men in Roman society
  • Song of the Nile: Cleopatra Selene Wants to Return to Egypt and regain her birthright as Queen of Egypt
  • Daughters of the Nile: Cleopatra Selene wants to save her children from the emperor’s obsession

Villains are Characters Too

Lots of money has been made in Hollywood by pitting a good character against an evil character–especially a twisty-mustache evil guy. But real villains seldom think they are. My villain in the Nile series, Augustus Caesar, thinks that everything he does is for the good of Rome. He is trying to build an empire and bring about the peace…and if that means Cleopatra’s children have to die, so be it.

The best stories–the absolute best ones–are not about good versus evil, or even evil versus evil. They are about good versus good. If you can come up with a story about two people whose goals are diametrically oppose to one another, but both have very good and understandable reasons for their actions, you will be half of the way to having written a masterpiece.

Characters Are What They Do

One of the most powerful moments in the history of film–whatever else you might think of the movie–is the opening sequence of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC, which is a historical fiction, by the way. Of a sort.

The strength of the opening is that we first see our protagonist trying to get an artifact from an ancient temple. We see him carefully making his way to his prize and weighing sand to see if he can approximate the weight of the treasure so as not to set off traps. We see that he’s smart. He does is homework. He’s probably done this before.

For a moment, it looks as if he guessed right, and he gives us a cocky grin. We learn that he’s got some swagger.

Then it turns out he guessed wrong. Disastrously wrong. And all the traps start going off. Our protagonist then throws caution to the wind and starts running like a maniac, dashing arrows. We learn that he’s lucky. Agile. Quick on his feet!

He’s immediately caught on the wrong side of a trench that can only be crossed by use of a whip and his companion says, “Throw me the idol and I’ll throw you the whip.” Our protagonist doesn’t like it, but he does it. We learn that he values his life more than the treasure. We also learn that maybe he’s more trusting than he ought to be.

His partner immediately betrays him, and our protagonist wastes no time in leaping over the chasm, struggling to get out. We learn what kind of raw grit the man has. Then we see him encounter the dead body of the man who just betrayed him and left him for dead.

And we see an almost regretful expression. Which tells us that in spite of all this swagger, he is humane. He has a good heart.

This is 2 minutes of film. 2 minutes that tell us all we need to know in order to root for this protagonist. The next two sequences in this film are just as efficient at broadening what we know about our protagonist, but it took only two minutes to establish character because character is what you do.

Finally, how will your character change?

This is the number one question you need to answer for fiction. And it will become plot. Often authors will write things like, “My character will become more hardened.” That’s kind of a cop out. What you really want is to identify the belief of your character that has changed. And new beliefs will guide you.

So that’s how you get a character arc in historical fiction. Or at least how you pound one into shape.

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Fun #AmericasFirstDaughter Podcast!

We talk historical accuracy, the choices of historians vs. historical fiction authors, all those letters Jefferson wrote, and the graveyard…

Put Yourself (and #AmericasFirstDaughter) on the map!

Patsy Jefferson helped her father found America. We think it’s only fitting to see her displayed in all the states of the nation. Plus, we want to see the smiling faces of our readers! If you’ve got a picture of the book in the wild, or one with you holding America’s First Daughter, we’d love to add it to our national map. And when we hit all fifty states, we’re going to do an epic giveaway!

To participate, post your photo to Facebook and tag Stephanie. You can also post it to Twitter as long as you mention @stephaniehdray. We can’t wait, and we’re waiting on you, heartland!

Publishers You Should Consider For Your Historical Fiction Novel

Fellow authors sometimes write to me for recommendations in terms of which publishing companies they should consider when submitting their historical fiction novels. At this point in my career, I’ve published with several different companies, big and small. I’ve also dabbled in self-publishing. I can only speak from my own experience and the knowledge I have gained from friends, industry surveys and conferences. That caveat aside, here’s my take on it.

My answer is, invariably, it depends. It depends on your goals, your sub-genre, your time period, your skill level, and the resources available to you. I come at the problem from the perspective of someone who wishes to be a working writer and achieve a wide readership. If those aren’t your goals, some of this advice won’t apply to you. That said, here we go.

Self-Publishing is a viable but limited option at this time.

At the time of the writing of this blog post, historical fiction is a genre whose readers are primarily aficionados of the printed book. Self-publishing need not be digital only; in fact, two of my own self-published books–A Day of Fire and A Year of Ravensare both available in print. But the most difficult aspect of self-publishing is achieving the necessary distribution in brick and mortar stores to reach historical readers. It’s by no means impossible, and there are success stories of brilliant author-entrepreneurs who have found a way. Authors like E. Knight and Libbie Hawker have made it work for them and maybe it can work for you too. But it’s a hurdle. There’s a learning curve. It also requires a monetary investment.

Big Five Publishers still dominate in distribution and marketing.

If you’re looking for your novel to be a big breakout bestseller, you should probably write something other than historical fiction. Just kidding! Mostly. Historical fiction is a niche genre. At the time of this writing, the industry is ruled by thriller novels and romance. But historicals have some unique advantages; first of all, they are a part and parcel of other genres. There are historical romances and historical thrillers. There are even historical fantasies. A second advantage is that historicals have a very long shelf-life. They’re already ‘dated’ by definition. And if they cover a time period of interest to certain people, there’s an evergreen effect. (For example, people are always going to be interested in Cleopatra, and therefore, there’s a resilience to my Nile books about her daughter that wouldn’t necessarily be present if I’d chosen to write about a random person in the ancient world.) Because of the nature of historicals, they can often be considered more weighty and literary than other genres, and, depending on a whole host of factors, have great potential when it comes to subsidiary rights like film and foreign sales.

This combination of advantages lends itself well to the strengths of major publishing houses. Big Five publishers can negotiate that precious front-table space in bookstores. They can put a marketing budget behind your project. They can get you industry reviews, appearances, advertisement, and superior distribution. The question is: will they?

Not all books are treated the same way by publishers. They don’t get the same budgets or resources. It’s possible your book was doomed to obscurity just by virtue of a better (or at least more perceivably marketable) book coming out from your publisher in the same month. These factors are largely out of your control. And I cannot stress this enough: Publishing is not a merit based business. The only thing you can do is write the best, most marketable book that you can, and be proactive throughout the publishing process so that if a lucky break is coming your way, you can seize it.

When a big five publisher decides to put their weight behind your book, you feel it, and it’s glorious. When they don’t, it’s an exercise in frustration and disappointment. Sometimes even embitterment. But which of the big five publishers is the best one for your book? I have no idea. There are so many different imprints that it’d be impossible to say which one was best suited to someone else’s work. This is where an agent’s advice would be handy, and is probably essential given that most of the big five don’t take un-agented submissions.

With big five publishers, editorial feedback can range from non-existent to excellent. Marketing and publicity support can range from non-existent to excellent. Contracts can be great and fair, or draconian. Loss of control over your work can be to your benefit (if you don’t know what you’re doing) to disastrous (when you know better).

When I write a book now, I tend to know right off the bat if it’s the kind of book that requires a big five publisher or not. If it’s the kind of book people already search for, I have more flexibility. If it’s the kind of book that won’t be found by readers without a big team to support it, then it’s big five publisher or bust.

No matter what the circumstances, what I have loved most about working with major publishers is the professionalism. No matter how frustrated I have become at any juncture, everyone has behaved cordially and professionally. Everyone has given generously of their expertise and I’m entirely persuaded by the strength of a team effort. I’ve met fantastic industry professionals and have nothing but mad respect for the people I have worked with.

My author friends who have been published by Amazon imprints seem happy.

I have not published with any Amazon imprint at this point, but would consider doing so in the future under the right circumstances and with the right project. I know of many success stories, particularly from the Lake Union imprint. Amazon publishing imprints seem to go out of their way to make their authors happy with little gifts and recognition that go a long way in a profession that can be so solitary and devoid of validation. And of course, Amazon has a number of tools at their disposal to help with distribution and visibility in the marketplace. As of the time of the writing of this blog post, I think it’s a great option.

Small press publishers are hit or miss for historical fiction, but mostly miss.

This is the part of this essay that is likely to get me into the most trouble, but I’m going to stand by it, with a few qualifications. Firstly, I’m specifically talking about historical fiction; small presses can be the best option in many other genres. Secondly, it’s important to note that not all small presses are created equal. Some have agreements with larger companies that aid them in getting distribution to libraries and bookstores for your print books–and I don’t just mean that they’re available to libraries and bookstores, but that they are actually in the stores, on the front tables, not just in the stacks. Some small presses can push industry reviews and garner awards and all sorts of success for your book. But these are rare, so you need to do your homework. Find out when the last time was that the small press had a historical hit a NYT or USA Today bestseller list. What about Amazon top #100? (And I don’t mean in the genre, but overall in the store.) If the answer is never, that tells you that there’s an upper limit to your success with this small press. When was the last time the small press garnered reviews for its books by Kirkus, Library Journal, etc. If the answer is never, that tells you the industry doesn’t take books from this small press seriously. When was the last time the small press bought up ad space or special promotions like Bookbub? If the answer is never, then you know you will probably be better off self-publishing. Does the small press make the book available in print? If the book is going to be available digital only, that is, for historical novels, a bad sign. What’s the cover art for other titles like? If the cover art on existing titles is so-so, that’s a disastrous sign. Talk to other authors who have published with them and ask them, confidentially, what it’s like to work with this publishing company. The worst, most abusive behavior in the industry that I know of has come out of small presses. If you hear stories that have even a whiff of fraud, abuse, fiduciary incompetence or simple disrespect for an author’s time or personal life, you need to run the other direction.

So there’s you have it. The Drayvanian philosophy on publishing options–subject to change as the industry grows and evolves. And it always does…

10 More Tips for Historical Fiction Authors

Last year I threw together a list of 10 Tips for Aspiring Historical Fiction Authors. But to some extent or other, we’re all always aspiring, as I’ve never really known a writer who was satisfied. Now I’m back with ten more tips that might be helpful to you, or at least make you chuckle.

Here we go.

1. Think like a salesperson. If you’re writing the book of your heart because you want your mom and your kids to read it, and you don’t care if you only sell five copies, then ignore this tip. This is not for you. In fact, if you read this article, it will corrupt your soul. But if you’re aspiring to build a career in historical fiction, then you have to face an uncomfortable truth. Your book is a product. It’s a product you and/or your publisher have to sell. Which means that you have to start thinking about who your consumer is and what they want to buy. For example, I know that my audience is largely American. This means American-set historicals like America’s First Daughter have a built in reason for purchase. At least for now. There are trends in the market and I pay attention to them in deciding what to write. I still make sure that whatever subject I take on is one that I am passionate about. By all means, put aside a book if you’re not feeling it. But if you think like an artist and a salesperson, you can find the junction between your passion and what readers want.

Dog Telling Story

2. All the rules of fiction still apply. I once had a vicious slap-fight with good friend and brilliant historical fiction author Kate Quinn in the Panera where we go to write together. The bone of contention was that I was trying to shape a character arc for my narrator–a queen of ancient Briton–and Kate had the audacity to tell me, “Don’t worry. It’s historical fiction. The history books will tell you what happens.” Well, if you’re a prodigy like Kate Quinn, you can take a look at a pile of research and magically divine character arc, motivation, pacing, dialog and theme. She does it by instinct. Blindfolded. With one hand tied behind her back. She actually applies all the rules of good fiction-telling without even thinking about it. But for the rest of us mere mortals it’s not so easy. Because historical fiction is not just what happened. That’s a biographer’s job. Historical fiction has all the same rules as every other kind of genre fiction, in that characters must change, pacing must be compelling, dialog must advance plot, there must be a plot, etcetera. That’s hard to do, because people’s real lives seldom fall into the neat shape of a plot arc. Now, you might be lucky. You might be writing about a historical figure or time period that already falls into a perfect plot arc. But just telling us what happened and how a character felt about it isn’t really a story. At least it’s not a good story. For that, you have to edit out the boring parts or combine them with fascinating things that keep the reader going. You have to take a hammer and chisel to the facts and give it a shape! Historical writers who don’t do this give us a bad name.

3. Immerse yourself in your time period. Most of what you need to write your historical book will come out in the things you specifically research for it. But just as often, tidbits that you hadn’t anticipated–amazing factoids you wouldn’t have even thought to look for–come to you when you’re not expecting them. If, that is, you are open to the opportunity. How do you open yourself to the opportunity? You immerse yourself in the time period. Go talk to re-enactors. Visit the locations if you can. Make photo collages. Watch every movie set in your era. Listen to music that would’ve been popular. Go to museums. Wear clothing or jewelry or make-up that your characters might have worn. Cook and eat food they would have served. You could even visit the History Channel. (Seriously, it’s not all Nazis, trucks and the apocalypse.) In short, act like a person obsessed. Your family and your neighbors will think you’re exceedingly strange, but your fellow historical authors will immediately recognize you as one of the tribe.

4. Footnote your manuscript. What? That’s crazy talk!! I know. I love footnotes and would use them without prejudice, but in American historical fiction, footnotes are highly frowned upon. They interrupt the reading experience, they create hassles in formatting, and they add pages (and therefore expense) to your book. So don’t include them in the book. But use them in your manuscript. Why? Because there will come a time, years down the road, when someone challenges you on something like, say, whether or not hippos are really dangerous creatures. And you can just open up your manuscript and find that resource. It also comes in super handy when you need to write up your acknowledgments page, provide a list of recommended reading, and/or give credit where credit is due.

5. Make a timeline. So, my co-author, Laura Kamoie, has a near photographic memory. Tell her a date and she can spit out what happened. Meanwhile, I can barely remember my own phone number, and yet, I have excellent relational memory. That is to say, I can remember what happened before what, and with what consequence to the history of the world. This is one of the many ways in which we complement one another. But combining our strengths to actually make a visual timeline of every relevant historical event in America’s First Daughter, not to mention the dates that letters were sent, that visitors arrived, that people moved in and out of Monticello…it helped us see a pattern that we had never seen before, and to our knowledge no one else has remarked upon. We realized, to be specific, that a forgotten founding father, William Short, was in proximity to Jefferson’s daughter at nearly every crisis in her life. That was a discovery that helped us shape a story. And it’s one of the reasons I’m a huge advocate of Aeon Timeline, which is one of the best $40 I ever spent. Making a timeline that you can refer back to while you write your historical fiction will not only help you see patterns and solve mysteries, but it will also help you avoid embarrassing errors.

6. Be Humble. Because whether you use a timeline program or not, you will make embarrassing errors. Maybe not a lot. Maybe not at all, at first. But it is inevitable that it will happen. Whether an impossible grey squirrel makes it into your manuscript or your publisher manages to insert a typo in production, things go wrong. It’s only the end of the world if you set yourself up as some infallible and insufferable pedant. If you do, readers will delight in calling you out on your mistakes–even if they aren’t mistakes. There’s always somebody out there who thinks they’re More Expert Than Thou and will downrate your book because of it, and you pretty much have to just suck it up. But you can complain about it quietly to your author friends. And if you’re generally humble, they’ll commiserate with you. But if you’ve been that guy at the party who refuses to read a book because an author used a non-preferred spelling of your favorite historical figure’s name, they will snigger behind your back and feed the trolls.

7. Make a blooper file. Once you accept that you are mortal, can make mistakes, and are more likely to make them when you have a production schedule of one historical book a year…you can salve your ego, and smooth ruffled feathers amongst your readers, by creating a blooper page where you admit your mistakes. Sharon Kay Penman has one. Kate Quinn has one. I have one. You can point and laugh. It’s okay. I have thick skin.

8. Develop thick skin. If they’re any good, your critique partners are going to tear your story up with notes and corrections. Your editor is going to suggest changes. Some readers are going to hate your book. They might even hate it in haiku. Sometimes it’ll make you laugh. Sometimes it’ll make you wanna smash stuff. But keep a stiff upper lip if you can, because if you can find any kernel of truth in the criticism, it’ll help make you a better writer. (And if you can’t, it’ll help you identify the readers you are reaching, and the feedback you can ignore.) I once received some amazing advice from James Patrick Kelly that a professional writer has to hold two entirely contradictory beliefs in their head at the same time. The first? That the story I have just written is absolutely brilliant and special and worthy of being shared with the world. The second? That the story I have just written is crap. Somewhere in the cognitive dissonance we can find confidence in the brilliant parts of our stories without being too smug to improve our craft.

9. Rewriting is where the art is. I’m a very slow writer when it comes to historical fiction. And recently, I had a very harrowing and educational experience in the writing of a story for my forthcoming continuity, A YEAR OF RAVENS. With my back up against the wall of an impossible deadline, I began a mad, frantic dash to complete my story in four days. And when it was done, I was sure it was so horrible that I didn’t think I could ever look my author friends in the eye again if they ever read it. All I felt was shame, shame, shame for that first draft. But then, in the editing, I realized that I had given myself a lot to work with. I’d used the wrong words here and there, a lot of details had to be fixed, but the basic structure was as sound as I could have made it. I don’t recommend this sort of trial by fire to anyone, and I’m not sure if I could replicate it, but remember that if your first draft is a disaster, you don’t have to bow down to the shame nun, because there’s always revisions.

10. Make historical author friends. Boy, you’re going to need them. And not just to help you tweet your new book releases. Writing can be an immensely lonely profession. Historical fiction writing even more so, because nobody else understands historical writers. We freak out at strange things. We go on researching rampages declaring that we must know the color of the hibiscus that flowered in ancient Algeria two-thousand years ago or we can never finish this book. (Just me?) There are things in our search history that would get us arrested if we did not have fellow historical author friends to defend us with a cry of, “She had to look up How To Kill A Small Child And Get Away With It for her story. I’ve read the Advanced Review Copy!” Only a historical author friend can both adore your twelve page exploration of the architecture of an ancient temple and still tell you how to cut it in half. And only another historical fiction author can understand the love and labor that goes into the books of our genre.