Writing Real People in Unreal Settings

Raise your hand if you’ve ever stared too long at someone because you were trying to memorize their features for a character description. Ten points if there was awkward eye contact. Twenty-five if it was a work colleague, and you were casting a villain.

There’s a whole lot of great advice out there for developing characters. Maybe you have an entire notebook filled with information about yours, up to and including their favorite ice cream. If you do, I confess I’m jealous. I’m a great believer in outlines, but I’m an inveterate pantser when it comes to character development. I have no idea who my characters are until they start interacting with each other. Only then can I figure out whether they prefer vanilla or mint Oreo.

If you write contemporary fiction, you may have been able to transplant your real-life human subject into your story with few modifications. However, those of us who write historical or speculative fiction have a bit more work to do. We have to think about language, the mannerisms and habits, and especially the fundamental assumptions of the time and place. Each of those could warrant its very own post, if not its own textbook chapter.

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This is my short advice: research, research, research. Write what you know, sure. But also: write what you’d like to know. Write what you’d willingly spend hours reading books, articles, and web pages about. This doesn’t only apply to historical fiction. Even if you write high fantasy, your setting will have at least some similarities to an actual historical period, whether it be fourteenth century Italy or feudal Japan, Viking Denmark or Queen Victoria’s England. I mean, come on, you know you didn’t make everything up. (And if you write science fiction, I’m begging you to know at least a little science first.)

Say you’ve got this wonderful character in this fantastic setting. Say it’s 1543 Munich. You know what your character looks like, because you’ve taken your spouse, your neighbor, or that guy in line at Starbucks, and put him in a doublet, beret, and, ahem, a bright orange codpiece.

He’s waiting for a friend. Since it’s not 2017, he’s not going to pull out his phone and catch up on social media. Will he pull out a book instead? Would he own a book in 1543, and if he did, would he take it outside and risk exposing it to the elements? Would he pick a flower? Pick his nose? Say he steps into a mud puddle. What does he say?

The most enjoyable research I’ve done in months was to read Holy Sh*t! A Brief History of Swearing, by Melissa Mohr. It’s not for ready blushers, but it’s humorous and contains a world of information of how (mainly English-speaking) people have used obscenity and swearing since Roman times. It discusses how oaths—the “holy”—and obscenities—the “sh*t”—have waxed and waned in their relative gravity over the centuries.

Our sixteenth century man might have used an excremental word to convey his displeasure. But if he were really, really mad, he might say something like, “God’s teeth!” And you see what side of the pendulum swing we’re on now, since I didn’t have trouble typing his oath, but hesitated before typing the other expletive. But our man lived in a different world than ours, in which sex and bodily effusions were rather more out in the open.

For this gentleman, an oath before his god would have been worse than epithets about excrement. The pendulum was swinging, however, with the rise of a new middle class, who showed off their hard-won respectability by declaring barnyard activities obscene. (This is why people have sworn like lords, tinkers, and sailors, but no one ever accused someone of swearing like a grocer.)

So now that we’ve figured out how our character talks and acts, how about his assumptions about his world? I’m not talking about the things we need to tell a good story—his hopes, fears, flaws, or his emotional arc. I’m talking about the things in his environment that he probably will not question—ever, unless our plot forces him to. Like the role of religion in his society. Or women. Or kings. Or the plague. Or the intelligence of children and peasants and dogs.

And yet we want to make our characters resonate to our readers, despite possible different worldviews. We want to identify with this man, codpiece or no. We want to look through his eyes, and feel his loves, hates, and needs. He needs to be like us—he is like us—in all the ways that matter most. So we walk a thin line between historical truth and emotional truth.

I’ve read a few novels written by historians, and in my opinion, most were dry as dust. I think these scholars spent so much time trying to be true to the historical figures they’d spent years studying that they’d lost sight of the fascinating people living behind the history. The books were nonfiction masquerading as fiction, and thus fell flat. I write historical fantasy rather than straight historical, so I can probably get away with a little more fact-tweaking. But I enjoy, and try to write, stories that strike a balance between historical accuracy and storytelling.

We writers have at least one advantage—we’re all experts at being human (apologies to any nonhuman writers out there). We enrich the worlds we create, intentionally or not, by placing the people we know into them. And no, I haven’t ever cast any work colleagues as villains. All right, maybe once, but it was years ago. Promise.

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Kristina Starmer lives in Southern Utah with her husband, son, dog, and more cats than she likes to admit. When not working as a university chemistry lab manager, she can most likely be found rereading one of her favorite books. She is passionate about traveling to new places, ice cream with lots of mix-ins, and the peaches from her garden. Her favorite children’s book is The Owl and the Pussycat and her favorite element is copper. She writes renaissance-era historical fiction topped with a generous scoop of magic.

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