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Worlds Apart November 2008

Back to Basics III



Last month we looked at the question of initial research: how to get started and find your basic directions and context. We said this has to be done with your story or plot line in mind all the time, and of course one of the central elements of your story will be its characters.


You will have your characters roughly sketched in your mind as you begin your research, and as you proceed, you can build and shape those early ideas by understanding how your characters, as individuals, would have lived in the time period in which you have set your story. Regardless of your genre, your task remains the same: you must build a consistent, accurate world that your readers can come to know and believe in, and fitting your characters into that world is part of the process. There are probably three principal elements to remember.


Social Context

This term covers a broad range of detail which you should bear in mind as you are doing your research. In essence, the question is where do your characters ‘fit’ into the society in which they live? Are they rich, poor, influential, inconsequential? Are they farmers, merchants, aristocrats, innkeepers, criminals?


The position a particular character occupies in society has a bearing on many things, and these have to ring true as you create and develop the character throughout your story. And the operative word here is throughout. Characters are not established simply by a few sentences or a paragraph at the beginning of a story. You may indeed begin with a physical description of a person, but the character itself must be steadily developed, described and illustrated all the way through. Characters must have substance, and one way to provide that substance is to be sure they accurately reflect their social context.


How is that to be done?


Description and Appearance

It may seem trite to say so, but it is necessary to pay close attention to how different kinds of people looked in your historical period. In previous articles we have discussed ways of researching the way people looked – photographs, paintings, written descriptions, etc. - and as you conceive of your characters and come to know them yourself (a vital step) you should be forming a picture of them in your mind as well.


Clothing is central to this issue. Obviously a farmer in eighteenth century France is not going to dress in the same way as a seigneur, nor would the farmer look the same in personal appearance. The farmer and the seigneur would not behave the same way either, and it is important to show all the specific characteristics. For example:


Alain wore a grimy white smock and baggy blue trousers that looked too large for him. His canvas sabots had wooden soles worn thin by countless hours of work in the fields. His dark hair was long and unkempt and when he smiled he displayed a set of yellow, decaying teeth. He walked with a scythe on his shoulder whistling cheerfully and calling to his friends in neighboring fields as he went.


As against:


The Marquee de Tours presented a picture of the latest in sartorial splendor as displayed at the court of Versailles: a broad-brimmed white hat, well-made horsehair wig with three side curls, a pale blue frock coat embroidered and bejeweled, doeskin breeches with white cotton stockings and black leather shoes replete with solid silver buckles. He sported a silver-headed ebony walking cane and in his demeanor he was the epitome of reserve and gentility.


In these two examples we see descriptions of two vastly different characters. Their social context is equally different, and by providing descriptions such as these, you take a first step in establishing those two characters and placing them in their respective places in the social order.



When thinking of a character’s social context, speech is one of the most central defining elements. We are familiar with different speech patters in present-day society, and such patterns existed historically as well. The vernacular used by Alain the French farmer, would have been much different from the French spoken by his Lordship the Marquee.


When referring to speech patters, I mean the entire range of words, phrases and sentences, as well as specific terminology. It’s easy to imagine that a banker in London in 1800 would speak differently from a British naval captain fighting Napoleon on the high seas. Expression such as set your spanker, or away your clew garnets, would be unintelligible to the banker, just as his talk of indentures, debentures and currency equivalents might be lost on the sea captain.


In like manner, the phraseology of everyday life – as opposed to occupation-specific terminology - varies according to social position. The speech of the eighteenth century landed gentry in England (for the best examples, read Jane Austen) was very different from that used by those known at the time as the common folk. A ready example of this is the fact that John Smith the tenant farmer or itinerant laborer called his wife “Mary,” or “Elizabeth,” while John Smith, the lord of the manor, called his wide “Mrs. Smith.”


All of this may seem like ordinary common sense, but it should not be lost sight of as you pursue your research. As you come to know your characters, learn about who and what they might have been in the world in which you are placing them. Good, strong character portrayals that are consistent and believable are a hallmark of good writing, and the accurate creation of such characters begins not when you start to write, but during your research.


Write on,