I read a few of your other pieces about character creation and was hoping you could expand more upon how you create a character based on a historical person. I’m trying to do something similar right now, and am really having a hard time. You said that you wanted the character to be as close to the historical person as humanly possible, so I just wanted to know how you accomplished that.
I don’t know how much more I can say on the subject without retracing what I’ve already said, but I’ll do my best. In my writings, I’ve incorporated a few historical people as main characters… Let’s take a look at them.
From left to right, Federico II Gonzaga, Pope Leo X, and Mary Jane Kelly.
Each of these characters presented their own problems in character creation and each had different levels of detail.
Federico and Pope Leo X were both portrayed in Divinity, and for those who have read it, Divinity is basically a story criticizing the church of that time, and by default, institutional religion in general.
Basically, I wanted to show the problems with blind adherence to strict interpretations of doctrine that was, in my opinion anyway, used way outside of its purpose. To do this, I posed the question; What would happen if an angel appeared in 16th Century Europe? What would happen if she were wounded and in need of help? How would people react to what she had to say or how she behaved? Would they take her in and help her, or would they fall back on what they’d been taught, not considering that those teachings might be wrong, and thus assume that she was actually a demonic presence?
To frame the story, I needed to choose the right time period and the right church leader. Yes, the Pope was a villain in the book. I wanted to be careful as I didn’t want to portray someone in a negative light who didn’t deserve it. There were plenty of Popes from the time period I had in mind that did their jobs and were, on a scale, considered benevolent.
Pope Leo X shows up on many of the ‘Worst Popes’ lists out there. He’s was extremely indulgent, driving the church deeply into debt, and then prayed on the ignorance of the faithful in order to sell indulgences to pay down that debt. He was not a priest and he’d had his hands very deep in the pockets of politics of the time.
My portrayal of him is based on that. I presented Leo X as a man who would view an angel potentially going around countering the teachings of the church as dangerous. Especially given that this was a time when the Protestant Reformation was really taking off. Other than his dealings with the church and some backstory of growing up as a member of the Medici family, there isn’t much on his personality traits. So basically, I had to envision what someone would be like who made the decisions he did. What I came up with was an intelligent, well-spoken individual, who was, unfortunately, too easily seduced by power and luxury. He lived by the silver spoon and would go to great lengths to preserve his way of life.
Federico II Gonzaga is a lot more complicated. Aside from allowing the armies of the Holy Roman Empire to pass through his land unmolested, and sack Rome, there really isn’t much on him. I had to dig a little deeper to find more info on him. He was somewhat subversive and underhanded at times, and he had very poor military experience. He essentially was a young man who was thrown into a role he was not equipped to handle. He was deep in the politics of the church, however, given a more passive nature and his manipulation of the system, I was able to portray him a little bit more as a skeptic of what was going on around him.
The lack of information on the personalities of people from several hundred years ago is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, with limited information, you have a lot more freedom. However, if you value history the way I do, you have a responsibility to dig as deep as you can and uncover every scrap of information you can find to make sure you get the character right… and even then you’re more than likely way off.
So let’s take a look at Mary Jane Kelly.
(Spoiler Alerts for Soul Siphon. If you don’t want to know about Mary Jane’s character yet, skip ahead.)
Now… obviously I took a LOT of dramatic licenses here… If you don’t believe me… these three pictures portray the same person:
Mary Kelly was a little easier to deal with for a few reasons;
- Outside of her death, she was a relatively insignificant person on the stage of history and it’s likely that her name wouldn’t show up in any historical texts otherwise.
- We do have historical accounts of her personality. However, those accounts are based on hearsay and the testimony of a few people who knew her. A lot of it was based on conflicting stories that she herself had told. So there you can pick and choose which ones sound feasible and which ones do not.
According to her, she had a brother in the military. This is likely. A lot of people served back then.
On the other side, she also has a number of brothers… I think the number was 7. Arguably less likely, especially from the same mother. Not helping matters was that sometimes it was 7, sometimes it was 2 or 3, or sometimes just one and a sister. Needless to say, I kind of dismissed that.
- I wasn’t going to portray her as she was back then. My character was the historical person, still alive in the 21st Century. In other words, she’d have 150 years of new experiences and development.
So here’s essentially what I did with her. From what historical accounts we can find on her, she was an Irish-born brothel worker with a sharp tongue. She was known for being quarrelsome and had earned the title of ‘Black Mary’, which suggests that she knew how to handle herself in a dangerous neighborhood. She was also known for getting drunk and singing Irish folk and patriotic songs… so perhaps I could add some of the cultural characterizations and stereotypes to her behavior. I also based some of her personality on my own experiences with Irish culture, people I’ve encountered, and friends I have from the homeland itself.
So with that information, I was able to build the character personality around those traits and behaviors. However, that original build would have been appropriate for portraying Mary Kelly as she was during the late 1800s. I had an additional hurdle to overcome with her in that she was going to have an additional 150 years of development.
So what would a character like that be like? Well contending with immortality, having to watch friends die, as well as having full memory of her murder, I tried to create a character who voluntarily isolated herself from the rest of the team and shies away from forming bonds out of a fear of loss or abandonment. I then created a backstory where she spent years protecting other prostitutes and brothel workers. When she finally located Jack the Ripper himself, she set out to kill him, only to lose her chance when he attempted to escape to American and drown when his ship wrecked. She later discovered that her failure to catch him sooner resulted in more deaths at his hands.
I used that backstory, coupled with the harsh life she lived, to create a bitter character who was justifiably mad at the world. So when our hero meets Mary, she’s harsh, rude, and extremely condescending. She continuously objects to the main character joining the team and gives him a wide berth. I’ve gotten emails from people who read her character and ask why she’s so mean… and I always smile because I can usually tell where they are in the story.
Truthfully, readers aren’t meant to like Mary at first. I’d actually understand if they didn’t like Mary at all. However, I did want people to understand her. I wanted to make a character that wouldn’t necessarily change, but people would at least grow to understand and even empathize with. You may not like her abrasive personality or attitude, but at least you’d develop an understanding of how she got that way in the first place.
So in the end, the major hurdle is whether or not these people would actually be like the characters I created. Honestly, I have no idea. I used their historical profiles and what personality traits I could find to build a character that is as close as anyone could reasonably get without actually knowing the person. That being said, I fully recognize that I could be completely off. One, because as I said, I never met these people. Two, because I’m exposing them to fictional situations. Given that, it would be impossible to predict how they would react, even from someone who knew them personally.
So I guess in the end, my advice is simply to be careful. Do your due diligence and… I’d personally avoid anyone living or recently deceased. It’s true that you can’t slander the dead, but you’d be surprised at the legal loopholing a famous person’s family can do if desired. If that’s what you want to do though, I’d contact a lawyer first to see what your options are and what you should or should not consider saying about said person.
If they’re from an ancient time period, any surviving family members would have a much harder time making a case against you, and many would first have to be able to trace their line back to said person which isn’t always easy to do in a way that would be accepted by most legal systems.
Anyway, I hope this helps, but let’s open it up to the readers. Does anyone else in the WordPress community have experiences with creating a character from a historical person? Feel free to share your experiences and the steps you took in creating said character in the comments.
Do you have a question about writing, publishing, my stories, etc? Please feel free to post a comment or email me.
I’ll use those comments to select my next blog post.
I have been writing for several years, have 4 published works, experience with publishing and independent work, so I can hopefully be of assistance.
Please note, I only do one of these a day and will do my best to respond to everyone, but it may take some time.
Also, feel free to check out my works of Fantasy and Historical Fiction, Available on Amazon and where ever books are sold. See the link below:
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Catch you on the flip side!