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Worlds Apart



Charles Mossop

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The Work of Writing VII



What is it that draws your readers into your story? The historical setting? The plot? Yes, both those, but above all else it is the characters you create. If they are properly drawn and believable, your readers will identify with them and will become emotionally involved in what happens to them. It is the characters in a story that bring it alive.


There are, of course, no fixed rules about how many characters you need, but obviously there should not be so many that the reader loses track of who is who or who is related to whom. (In the initial printing of War and Peace the publisher provided a family tree at the beginning.) As you develop the story in your own mind, you will discover the characters you need, and then your task becomes one of making those characters believable and consistent. In establishing characters there are three major elements that should be addressed, and they are appearance, speech and personality. The first two are the simplest to deal with and we will do that over the next two months.



The question of what a character looks like can be broken down into two parts: physical appearance and dress. Since we are dealing with historical fiction in this column, the first question to be asked is: Was this character  a real person or a purely fictitious one? Let us assume first that the character you are dealing with was an actual person, a man, and you are faced with the task of describing his physical appearance. If you go far enough back in time it is almost impossible to know exactly what historical characters looked like, but you can still take certain steps in your research. In some cases there are portraits or statues, but in ancient times these were usually so stylized as to be useless for descriptive purposes.  Thus, within reason, you can simply imagine an appearance for such a character. On the other hand, I once met a writer who was creating a story about ancient Egypt and needed to describe Pharaoh Ramses II. Tomb paintings were no help and studying pictures of  Ramses’ mummy was no use either, unless he wanted to describe the Pharaoh as dry and emaciated, but in the end a document was located on the Internet written during Ramses’ reign which actually did provide a good description of what the monarch looked like. The lesson in this is simply that you never know what you can find until you look.


If your historical period is not quite so far removed as Pharaonic Egypt, however, you can often find portraits or, more recently, photographs, of the characters you want to describe, and that is usually all you need.


“Why bother?” I can hear you ask, and the answer is that the first step towards bringing long dead characters alive is to be as accurate as you can about what they looked like.  If it can be done, it should be done. Napoleon, for example, was short and rather fat, and to describe him otherwise is to depart from reality, so wherever possible you should try to find some sort of physical description for a character who was a real person.


As another example, for my novel The Manuscript Murder, I needed a description of Charles V of Austria, the 16th Century Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain (as well as a whole host of lesser titles). Moreover, I needed to know what he looked like when he was in his early twenties. Thanks to the Internet I found a contemporary engraved portrait of him which I combined with a written description which was also on the Internet. Thus I was able to offer the reader a fairly accurate picture of the Emperor which was true to life and therefore more meaningful.


“But,” I also hear you ask, “who would ever know anyway?” and the answer to that is that somewhere amongst the vast population of readers out there, there is always someone who knows. It must be remembered that many people who read historical fiction have a fascination for history in general, and can form a very discriminating audience. The rule of thumb is do your research well and be as accurate as you can.  


If, of course, you are creating a character from pure imagination then everything is open to you, but the same general rules apply no matter which type of character you are dealing with. For example, physical descriptions should not be overdone. That is, you should strive to include sufficient detail to allow your readers to envision the person, but not so much that it becomes overwhelming. For the most part, it is a person’s face that is described in greatest detail, but it is a good idea to concentrate on one or two very specific elements such as the eyes, the shape of the face or the type of hair. Going beyond the face you can also highlight a character by describing them as very tall, very short, or perhaps walking with a limp. In creating a physical description, therefore, try to find some identifying characteristic that will stick in your readers’ minds. If you do that, you will help to bring the character alive.


More about characters next month.


Write on,



Customs of Birth, Marriage and Death, Part Three
October 2006 Issue
September 2006 Issue

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