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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Never trust anyone over 200

Or, what do you do with characters in historicals?

A case history:

This character was raised in benign neglect and wore a dress until he was about five. He was frequently beaten for minor offenses and his closest relationships were probably with servants. At the age of seven, he was sent off to a boarding school where he was made to memorize and parse long sections of the classics, beaten by his teachers, and bullied and possibly sexually assaulted by his peers. He may have risen to be one of the bullies himself.

Several of his siblings died, including his older brother, and he was not to have a career in the Navy, as his family originally intended, but was now the heir to a large and complex estate.


He believes that Britain rules the waves, foreigners, Jews, and Catholics are evil, women are either whores or marriageable, and any sort of sexual activity that does not lead to procreation is shameful. He drinks far too much. He's very quick to take offense and is prepared to fight to the death with anyone who insults his honor.


Yikes. He's a psychopath.

No, he's the hero of a Regency-set romance, so what I'm saying is that the problem with historical characters is that it's possible to have too much history. But the whole point of writing or reading a historical is that you want some authenticity and to be immersed in another time.

So my first piece of advice is be very, very careful with character questionnaires. You want some history--but not too much. Use what you can, write around the rest. Make him sympathetic to readers, but not anachronistic--he's never going to let the butler or valet address him by his first name, however well they know each other. He's never going to tell people--or even think--he doesn't want to inherit the title or continue the family name.

Now rewrite the biography:

He was raised in a large loving family (and yes, potty-training was the equivalent of house-training a puppy and little boys did wear dresses. All quite normal, as was physical punishment). He survived the horrible conditions of boarding school.

Because he loves his family, and grieved for the loss of elder brother and other siblings, he knows he must do his duty as the heir to the estate. He reluctantly gives up his dream of becoming a great naval hero. He treats his tenants, some of whom have known him since he was a child, with kindness and respect.


He meets a woman who teaches him what's what and how to do it, and how to avoid unwanted pregnancies. Even better, she might be foreign, Jewish or Catholic. They part on friendly terms.


He still believes Britain rules the waves, drinks beer for breakfast, and is prepared to fight to the death with anyone who insults his honor.


How do you approach the blend of history and fantasy? What sort of historical characters do you like? What problems do you encounter when writing them?


And happy Valentine's Day, everyone! Hope you're having a chocolicious and smoochy day.


Read an exclusive interview today with Cupid at Risky Regencies, and visit a new blog, Lust In Time, where I'm guest blogging and giving away a book tomorrow (Friday Feb. 15).

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12 Comments:

At 11:05 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Oooo, I love this, Janet. Actually I think your advice is good for the writer of a contemporary - don't give your characters too much baggage.

My background in mental health and (Freud) would say, give your characters a good first 5 years, then pile on (not too many) bad things.

 
At 11:45 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

Janet,
Great point about not giving the characters too much real history. I love how your sense of humor always comes through in your blogs.

Would you say this advice works for historical romance, but not for straight historical fiction along the lines of The Other Boleyn Girl? Or do both need to be somewhat tempered?

 
At 12:53 PM, Blogger Janet Mullany said...

don't give your characters too much baggage.

Exactly, Diane! Of course with my second version you could pile on a whole lot of baggage and probably would; you'd have to have some, after all. I tend to like to write characters who have come to terms with themselves before they fall in love and become horribly messed up. Such fun.

But I too have read contemporaries where the characters have so many issues you wonder how they even manage to function--and of course then you wonder what it is about them that makes the protagonist fall in love with her/him. I don't like books where the h/h "heal" each other--it seems to me that's something they should do on their own, and then fall in love.

I think the selective history/background applies for any sort of fiction because it's the writer's job to sift and sort and reveal. We all know far more about our characters than appears on the page--it's that secret knowledge that gives them substance.

I think in straight historical fiction you can include a lot more background and detail because that's what readers expect (although I expect it anyway!).

 
At 1:42 PM, Blogger Esri said...

Oh, that is too funny. You're right, Janet -- by today's standards no woman in the world would want a man like that. Of course, this is an average Regency guy. One of the nicest things about reading Vicky Leon's Uppity Women series is reading how fathers, brothers and husbands bragged on their achieving womenfolk, as far back as history records. So there are exceptions. Maybe history writers are dealing exclusively with those men. :)

 
At 2:54 PM, Anonymous Colleen Gleason said...

But I too have read contemporaries where the characters have so many issues you wonder how they even manage to function--and of course then you wonder what it is about them that makes the protagonist fall in love with her/him. I don't like books where the h/h "heal" each other--it seems to me that's something they should do on their own, and then fall in love.

Janet, this is so well-said! I concur 100%.

And, Esri, I love the Uppity Women series. I have four of those books, and I think I'm missing one or two. It reminds me of that quote that goes something like "well-behaved women never made history."

 
At 3:51 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Great case history for this poor guy. And you're right, I am much more sympathetic when you describe him the second time...by being vague and leaving out some of the brutally honest facts.

I like romance set in medieval times. these men lived in violent crazy times and yet once I get to know their internal conflict and I know they have feelings just like most people, I become easily sympathetic to their plights.

This might not be a good example, but the movie 300, for instance. Those guys are out for blood and yet I felt sympathetic to them all. But, of course, I couldn't stand the villains in the movie who didn't treat the women equally and who showed no compassion whatsoever.

I'm rambing and probably not making much sense. Bottom line, I guess I don't care what time period as long as the hero appeals to me in some way.

 
At 5:42 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Great post, Janet. I think doing those character interviews is walking a fine line. A writer can do them, in detail, but a lot of the stuff that's revealed in the answers doesn't need to make it to the actual book.

 
At 9:09 PM, Blogger doglady said...

So what you are saying is pick the things about this guy that are defining things - the things that make him who he is AND pick things in which growth can be shown. Does that make sense?

 
At 9:40 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Makes sense to me, doglady! Well put.

I don't do interviews with my characters, but I sorta construct a "social history" - my social work experience coming into play again. And I usually just do it in my head.

ooo ooo, 300!!! I have opinions of 300, Theresa! Now talk about an alpha hero. Leonidas was the epitome. Certainly the Spartans were ruthless soldiers, the truth of that society is very brutal, but in the movie Leonidas is shown as a loving father and husband (a VERY loving husband!).

I think that is important in an alpha hero. He must not show any cruelty or thoughtlessness to those more vulnerable than he.

Historical heroes are fun because they can be more alpha - the more harsh the time period, the more strong and ruthless they can be.

Diane (who someday might show her talking Leonidas doll, if you are very very good)

 
At 10:14 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Ooooh, a talking Leonidas doll! Where did you get that and how good did YOU have to be to get it? I LOVE that movie and he is definitely the ultimate Alpha Male!

 
At 11:04 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Ha! Diane. Now you have to show us your Leonidas doll! Too funny.

 
At 11:51 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Theresa! As a card-carrying Tart, I couldn't help buying a Leonidas doll.

Okay. You've all been very very good so I'll show you my doll for Q and A day tomorrow.

 

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