After a great discussion about creating realistic characters on our most recent podcast, Sarah and I have been enthusiastically developing the major characters in our new book. Unlike our previous works, our new (and untitled) book is historical fiction which means a couple of the characters are based on real life people. Albeit, people who lived a few thousand years ago.
And we face an unusual dilemma: We have to make believable characters that are true to their historical figures without any indication about what they were like as people. Since our characters are minor historical figures from so long ago, no real record of what they were like (or even what they looked like) exists.
I have scoured the internet for information about one of our characters and have only found a handful of references about him—usually only a few sentences, sometimes a paragraph. I’ve managed to piece together a few key facts about his lineage and political alliance. As well as the key historical events he was part of.
Now, we have to fill in the blanks. We roughly know what he did through the course of his life. But, who was the man behind all these events?
What was going on in his mind?
What made him the way he was?
Why did he make the fateful decisions that he did?
This is a challenge we have never faced before. Usually, we design our characters with specific backstories and characteristics so they can drive our story forward. It’s a bit different when you already know what the person did, and are trying to work backwards to figure out who the person was.
It’s a bit like a good old fashioned murder mystery. We we know what happened. And now, all that’s left to do is work out the motive—how and why did it happen.