Lesson No. 3: Historic Characters in Historic Novels

How often have you heard people discussing their favorite book and mention how much they loved the characters? The question to ask them, and yourself, is why? Why did they love the characters? Most people will remark that the characters felt so real, so lifelike, or that they even felt like friends. Maybe the character was so wretched, but still memorable, like Frankenstein’s monster. Or maybe the character gave the reader a sense of renewed purpose or courage, like King Arthur or Bilbo Baggins. Maybe this character was based upon one or more historic characters.

Question: Who is your favorite character and why?

As writers it is our job to evoke incredible, memorable characters into our stories. Characters are integral to the story, and with good characters, your readers will be willing to follow you to the end of the book, and perhaps to the next.

Let’s start by considering: what makes a good character, and more importantly how to make them real and memorable?

Getting Started with Historic Characters

Where do good characters come from? Your imagination. It is your job as the writer to expand your boundaries and reach to the outer limits to bring back a worthy protagonist. Lazy writers copy and use devices already seen a hundred times over. The goal is to create a character that will look and act different than any other. How is this accomplished? By spending the necessary time to flesh out a character.

Some things you’ll want to consider when creating your historical characters are:

  • Character name
  • Age
  • Height, weight
  • Birthday, birthplace
  • Martial status
  • Religion/spirituality
  • Race/nationality
  • Class (upper, lower, middle, other)
  • Educational background
  • Occupation, apprenticeship
  • Place in community
  • Best friend
  • Relationships
  • Enemies
  • Family members
  • Parent’s education/occupation
  • Home life
  • Temperament
  • Superstitions
  • Ambitions
  • What the character wants and why
  • Philosophy in life
  • Hobbies
  • Skills and talents

This list is hardly complete, but will give you a place to start in fleshing out a rounded character. For historical novels, (as with any fiction), the key is to have the research behind it. So for instance, if the character is an apprentice, what kind? Where? Who is he/she apprenticed to? What is the pay? … the list of questions goes on and on. You may not need to know everything about apprenticeship, only what is needed to convey the character, and the build the story around it. But the more you know, the more likely you are to convince your reader.

It’s important, even in choosing your character’s name, to get the historic detail correct.

Tips for Making Well-Rounded Characters

  1. Give your character a purpose, a motivation.
  2. Make your character shine with moments of being human. Show their vulnerability.
  3. Make them real by giving them traits your readers will relate with, and find a mirror of themselves.
  4. Make your character sympathetic to the trials and tribulations of those around them.
  5. Give your character Voice is a unique signature, one that makes them sound different than the rest. This can be achieved through dialogue and manners. It is directed by how your character sees the world.

Exercise: To get you started thinking about your characters, fill out the following the following character information sheet; then incorporate the ones that mean something to you, into your fiction. Character sheet. (It should be a lot of fun to consider–feel free to add you own to the list). 

You can also read a great article on POV and Narrative Voice here: Point of View and Narrative Voice. (Source: http://teenwriting.about.com/library/weekly/aa111102e.htm)


The two chapters assigned for the reading, Innocent Traitor by Allison Weir and Song of Achilles by Madelline Miller. are great examples of strong, well-rounded characters. Both should serve you in considered character. Pay attention to which details make you, as the reader, feel like you’re in the past.

Reading Questions

  • How did the author successfully convey the historical characters?
  • What character traits were you drawn to that made you feel in the time period?
  • What didn’t work for you?
  • Was there a point where you felt out of the time period?


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Colleen Morrissey is an author, scholar, and teacher from Omaha, Nebraska. She achieved her B.A. in English at the University of Iowa and her M.A. in English literature at the University of Kansas. She is currently working toward her Ph.D. in English Literature at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Her dissertation, which she will defend in spring 2018, explores 19th-century British literature and culture. She was awarded an O. Henry Prize in 2014 and has been a Best American Short Stories Notable. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Southeast Review, Cincinnati Review, Monkeybicycle (print and audio), and others; her creative nonfiction has appeared in Confrontation; her scholarly writing is forthcoming in the Iowa Journal for Cultural Studies and an edited volume on British women writers; her poetry has appeared in Parcel and Blue Island Review.