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Melding characters pulled from historical sources

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by buyjupiter, Dec 20, 2016.

  1. buyjupiter

    buyjupiter Maester

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    Hey all! Long time no see.

    I'm basically pulling a GRRM and pulling from a historical period I adore [not the wars of the roses, as much as I love that time period, it's kinda being handled right now with Song of Ice and Fire!]. I'm not keeping the historical personnages intact, name-wise/genderwise/ethnic-wise. I'm just not interested in reading a story that has too homogenous a dramatis personae list. And history has been very heavy in recording the details of men's lives/actions, etc etc politicking blah blah blah, so I'll be making a cast of characters that isn't constrained by historical accuracy because it's fantasy!

    Now, I've gone through the list of folks who were very active in that time period and pulled the ones who were either most important, or I really like them, or I liked the sound of the name. It's a very long list of folks. Even tho I whittled it down from hundreds [no really, it's at least 200 names I'm pulling from over a ten year span of events] to 37 there are still too many people to effectively characterize/spend time with the characters. [This is not counting the minor warlord type characters that will be mentioned by name but not front and center, or at least I don't think they will be.]

    I'm combining the cousins I know about into a set of twins [and may make them fairly interchangeable as a bit of a joke, but both characters are too important to only put one in, and I don't think it's feasible to combine them into one character because of spatial/time constraints]. I have three characters where I'd love to have all three, but they all serve the same kind of function [spy] and that might get confusing. I have one character that will only be appearing as a joke character and he's intended to be a very flat characterization [and I really don't want to lose the joke, but I know, I know, kill your darlings].

    How do you all handle long lists of characters? Do you have some that show up in groups and mug your MCs for a scene then wander off never to be heard from again? Are there sets of characters that you rotate through in your chapters? At what point does a large cast of characters get too unwieldy for you to manage as a writer?
     
  2. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I write historical fantasy as well. My list of potential characters is many thousands long, but note the word "potential".

    I start with the story, which means I start with the main character. With historical stuff, there's usually some sort of plot more or less in place -- a war to be won, a kingdom to be won, an enemy to be thwarted. So, to start with, I see how far I can get with just my main character.

    Well, right away, I need an antagonist, unless it's some sort of outdoor adventure tale. And pretty quickly the MC needs a buddy. But the aim is always to minimize. How few characters are indispensible to the story?

    Along in there--I'm not terribly organized--I start dealing with scenes. The same set of questions apply. Who is needed in order to get through this scene? This tends to add a few bit players.

    You will note that I do not start with how many people historically were around. I do not start with how many people might I use. I don't want my novel starting out looking like a grand ball.

    Eventually I get to set decoration. I might mention a duke, though he never appears directly. I make reference to historical characters who are no longer living at the time of the story.

    So I do wind up with quite a long list of characters. I try to kill off a few, where it makes sense to do so. Besides, the more characters you have at the end of the story, the longer the denouement!

    You have your list. Treat them as actors auditioning. Not all will make it, and every one of them is going to have to prove his or her necessity to the story. And a few of them, despite their performance, will wind up cut in the edits.
     
  3. buyjupiter

    buyjupiter Maester

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    I'm doing more research into the ones I'm generally kinda familiar with. That way I can go ok, I want to use this bit of their life story, but not feel obligated to write a bio-pic. If that makes sense.

    The time period I'm covering is late 18th C America, so right after the revolution and up to the next big conflict in 1812.

    To use an example of a character that I want to use, but not as a historical figure, is Ethan Allen. A big part of Ethan Allen's story is the Green Mountain Boys, which I like the sound of, but as far as other things he did during the time period I'm not as interested in using. There are other characters I have that filled that role in the story, so he's not terribly necessary in that role.
     
  4. SergeiMeranov

    SergeiMeranov Scribe

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    I'd echo what skip.knox said. Really you need to determine what story you want to tell and then determine what characters are necessary to that story. The overall story is going to be what determines how many and what kind of characters you'll need/will fit well. Even if you start with a main character sketch or something you can still determine what characters are necessary by just going "What is it about this character that is appealing? What about his story do I want to tell?" and then figure out who else would be necessary to that story.

    As an example from your time period. If I wanted to tell some analogue to the US Constitutional Convention I could have a pretty long list of characters there. They each contributed something towards the writing and adoption of the Constitution, but certainly there were major players like Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, etc. who were going to be the most interesting. I think especially when you're writing historical fiction it's important to separate the important actors to the story from the people that just turn into interesting anecdotes. To further the example above, it's interesting that Charles Pinckney was the member the moved the Constitution be amended to include the Emoluments clause and that the move was based on Ben Franklin having received a fancy snuffbox from King Louis, but it's probably not incredibly relevant to your overall focus of the Constitutional Convention and its major players to have Charles Pinckney as an independent character.
     
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  5. buyjupiter

    buyjupiter Maester

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    I guess my biggest problem, and this is a problem with the time period as a whole, is that once the war was over they didn't just go back to being farmers. So everyone on my list is part of pretty much every event worth writing about. Which doesn't help me narrow down my cast of characters! [This is not the worst problem to have it's just been frustrating trying to figure out who my main cast of characters is going to be. I could go Washington/Jefferson/Adams, like everyone else, or I could go with Pinckney/Laurens [jr & sr] and some of the lesser known folks.]

    I also realized that I need to figure out whose voice I'm using! Whether it's a first person from the POV of one of these folks that I'm researching or if it's as GRRM 3rd person limited POVs. I'm really leaning towards either a Ben Franklin sort [amiable, lots of fun, knows absolutely everyone] or a Thomas Paine kind of narrator [a pain in the rear, really negative/suspicious of everyone] if I do an over-arching narrative voice...So there's another way I can use one of the characters I'm researching.

    I did make the executive decision that since I loathe John Adams [and characters like that] and adore his wife ever so much, I'm killing the John Adams off in my story and making Abigail a widow from the get go. And mind, none of these characters are going to be called George Washington or John Adams, but that's basically who they'll be. [One neat bit of research into a character who did get axed, mostly, is that the cipher maker for the army called Abigail "Portia", which I guess was her nickname of sorts. So that makes renaming her character ever so much easier. It's not an obvious analogue of Abigail which is the kind of thing I'm trying to avoid.]

    I am looking forward to writing with an Abigail Adams POV :)


    I typically write very intimate "three main characters is a lot of characters" kind of urban fantasy short fiction & this is going in the opposite direction from that. Very opposite.
     
  6. SergeiMeranov

    SergeiMeranov Scribe

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    I think it will ultimately turn on what story you want to tell then. I agree with you that generally speaking a lot of people from that era tended to be involved in most of the big events, but each of them had a greater or lesser role in that event. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison had big roles in authoring papers in support of the Constitution and so if your story is more overarching about how the Constitution came to be and the high level political wrangling that went into it then they'd be better characters than say Charles Pinckney, but if the passing of the Constitution at the high level is a backdrop but you want to focus specifically on how it got passed in South Carolina then Pinckney is certainly more important.

    Again, it'll all depend on what sort of story you want to tell and who the major people were in that story. Sorry I can't be more helpful than that, but I'd need more specifics to give you any more specific advice.
     
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  7. buyjupiter

    buyjupiter Maester

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    The tagline for this is "Founding Fathers as world building wizards" and you kinda get where I'm going with this one. I made a joke once about Ben Franklin being the Bard of the party and George Washington being the Paladin and this is what happens...

    And yes, I very much understand how weird I am. :)

    [I do really wanna do a Harry Potter style wizards duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton and while I'm sure Lin Manuel Miranda would totally be on board for that...it's kinda been done already.]
     
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Another angle is to tell the story from the POV of an invented character. The historical figures form the backdrop. They can wander in and out of the story. But the story is about the invented character and his arc.

    If the Founding Fathers are wizards, an invented character has the luxury of being amazed, mystified, confused, thus serving as a surrogate for the reader.

    But even if you stay with the big ones, I'd recommend choosing just one. Yes others figure prominently, but if you're willing to kill off Adams merely because you dislike him, you are free to shuffle the historical deck as you please. You could even make Franklin a minor player. There's no need to drag the whole litter of them onto the stage.
     
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  9. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

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    Well the movie industry takes historical figures and uses their creative license, so it's not uncommon.

    As far as a long list of characters, I'd categorize them in terms of importance to the story and divvy out the amount of pages spent on each accordingly. As far as central characters, you don't want to go overboard. GRRM has quite a few different POV chapter characters, but still sticks with certain ones most of the time. If you were to do POV chapters with a central character, you could have other supporting characters be contained within that specific chapter. Kind of like how you have Jon Snow chapters where the Night's Watch supporting cast is pretty much contained within. Unless of course they have to interact with a different group, kind of like how Theon and his sister had to go from Westeros to Essos and tie in with Dany and her supporting cast.
     
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  10. buyjupiter

    buyjupiter Maester

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    I figured out a way to lessen my cast of characters to a more manageable few: talk from the founding mother's povs. This gelled for me yesterday when I found a book about Benjamin Franklin's sister, and my book on Abigail Adams was letters to and from her sisters. The research will be harder, since no one kept the women's letters/journals/housekeeping stuff, but it will be more interesting for me to write. And this makes it entirely believable that I'm skipping writing about the boring battles stuff. [my eyes glaze over if a fight scene takes too long.]

    I did forget that I'm gonna have to make a decision re:Indians and slavery and whether or not I will discuss either. I'm really not qualified to talk about either thing other than "no bad white folks, don't, no, that's not right either"...[I've pretty much made up my mind how I want to handle both topics, but man, I did forget that I'd have to make that decision. & there's no "right" decision there, except "don't screw it up".]
     
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