On Creating Interesting Characters For Historical Teen Novels, by Pauline Francis
For me, an interesting character is somebody who has all the odds stacked against them and has to find a way out. They must have a strong, believable voice that sweeps the reader along.
Just as I was beginning to write historical fiction for teenagers, I went to a conference and wrote down a wonderful quotation from one of the speakers (unfortunately, I didn’t make a note of the speaker’s name). It was: “Characters in history are just like the stars. It takes a long time for their light to reach us.”
The two narrators of my first novel, Raven Queen, were real: Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth I. They are strong characters, fighting for their cause. In my second novel, A World Away, I made up my central character, Nadie, a Native American girl captured by English colonists. If I’m honest, she is the least interesting of all my characters because she didn’t really know her path in life (except to find the English boy she loved) and I think this weakened her voice. I’d love to go back and change her because it’s an interesting novel in all other ways. I have begun to move away from real characters to concentrate on fictional characters who find themselves in real-history situations. My new novel (Ice Girl, not published yet) is the story of a girl at the mercy of Spanish colonists who fights back with incredible courage and determination, as well as leading other conquered people to safety.
I’ve just read a novel with the most amazing character. It gripped from beginning to end because the narrative voice is so strong. It’s Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon, which has just won the children’s category of the UK annual Costa prize. The agonising story is told in the first person by a fifteen year old boy called Standish (an unusual name). It’s tear-jerking and harsh (there’s very strong language because it’s mainly his thoughts, so the outside world wouldn’t usually hear it).
If you’re having problem choosing a character, try turning a situation on its head. Many Kings from history had mistresses. Sometimes they bore sons who claimed the throne (the term pretender to the throne is from the French pretendre – to claim). What was it like to be a pretender? I decided to make the fictional Francis (in Traitor’s Kiss) a good person. He doesn’t actually stake his claim as Henry the VIII’s son, but he could have. So he’s still a threat. Princess Elizabeth knows this. Francis becomes one of her victims. She leaves him in a madhouse called Bedlam, just in case he decides to make trouble for her. My novel-in-progress (Blood) is set against the French Revolution. It was a time of great innovation medically and my fictional narrator wants to be an anatomy artist.
You don’t have to make a huge leap of imagination to make your characters interesting. Often a small one will be enough to bring your character alive. In Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick, the story of murder and revenge is made gripping because the action takes place in a small log cabin over a few days with the body of the narrator’s father on the kitchen table. It is that dead father who sends a chill down our spine. He is the interesting character. If the story had been narrated by his son in the future, away from that log cabin, it would have become another murder/revenge story.
Paulines Francis’s author website: www.paulinefrancis.co.uk
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