How To Write
Strong Female Characters in Historical Fiction
Whether you’re a man or a woman the process of writing a book that is a good read about someone of the opposite sex can be tricky. Historical characters have to be every bit as complex as people today, they have to think and feel, have a back story, desires and beliefs.
People of either sex and those who class themselves as something in between are complex. Do you know where your characters score on the Big Five Personality Taits?
Where would your characters fit in the Myres Briggs range of personality types?
As an author who wants to write historical fiction books with believable characters I try to make my characters multidimensional and rounded. I like to write characters who change and grow as they overcome the obstacles I put in their way so who they are affects how they react, what they do and say.
As a writer, you have to show your reader the character.
To do this your actors have to understand some things about themselves, the people around them have to understand parts of their personality they are unaware of themselves, and they have discovered things about themselves as the story unfolds.
Use A Johari Window
Think of the Johari Window – In the open pane there are things known to self and others, then there are things known only to self, there are things known by others and not by self, and finally things about the character that are unknown to both. These are the things the character will learn of their journey.
Making your character want something big will give you a good starting point to build around. What will Jane or Belle do get what her heart desires? Of course, what she will do wholly depends on how you’ve set her up. So much women’s fiction, historical and modern literary fiction is based on morally deviant characters these days because its an easy way to get Jane or Belle to do something extraordinary, something shocking and unexpected.
Creating Memorable Characters
Memorable characters achieve their goals.
- Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice simply has to change her mind to achieve her goal of marrying the richest and most handsome man in town.
- Barbara Taylor Bradford’s Emma Harte builds a business empire and financial independence through her romantic ups and downs.
- Louisa M Alcott’s Jo March becomes a teacher and then a wife.
What makes these characters so well loved is that they overcame the obstacles society and their families put in front of them.
So, to write an attractive female character, she needs a goal and a lot of opposition, not necessarily a bad-ass attitude to the law.
Draw a Picture Warts and All
Angels are for heaven, not this earthly realm.
Being human, male or female, means we come with strengths and weaknesses and lots of imperfections. Try to make your characters interestingly flawed. Strengths, when we rely on them too much can be our downfall just as much as weaknesses.
Fears and Weaknesses
Overcoming weaknesses could be the making of a remarkable historical character, so don’t think to create a sassy heroine she has to be macho or fearless.
The most common fears for women are pretty much the same as they have always been. Which of these fears are you going to challenge your female historical characters with?
- not getting married or finding a life partner,
- not having kids or losing a child,
- getting old, maimed or scarred,
- being killed or raped,
- being trapped in a loveless relationship,
- being abandoned
- ending up in poverty or dying alone.
Good writers let the reader know which fate awaits their historical heroine should she fail.
Mesmerising historical characters use everything they’ve got, their strengths, weaknesses, and their ingenuity to save themselves from their horrible fate.
Not the Prettiest Girl in Town
Characters we come to love are not the prettiest girls in town or the girls who never lose their temper.
- J.K Rowling’s Hermione Granger is a know-it-all.
- Dorothy .L. Sayers’ detective Harriet Vane is a gawky, unorthodox bluestocking accused of murder when she meets her future husband Lord Peter Wimsey
- Jo March in Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women as a fearful temper, and so does my character Charlotte Leadam.
- Charlotte Leadam suffers from secondary infertility and has a temper too.
Historical women had pride, intellect and ambition. The felt pain, they hated people, and of you had been around to prick them they would bleed.
If your historical female character is the sidekick to an all-conquering male protagonist, why shouldn’t she feel peeved and throw the odd spanner in the works from time to time?
Let your characters surprise you and surprise themselves.
- Turn the tables on them, flip things around. Make what seemed impossible possible.
- Let your characters find their courage, make fortuitous mistakes, try something they have never tried before even if it is taking the wrong advice.
- Let your characters learn painful lessons, be confronted by their hypocrisy or the results of their stupidity.
- Let them learn a secret that gives them power over others – lead them into temptation, and see how they perform.
Remember, whether you’re creating a female character or writing about a woman, she’s just human.
And that being human is to be full of possibilities.
Julia Herdman writes history and historical fiction. Her book Sinclair is set in the London Borough of Southward, the Yorkshire town of Beverley and in Paris and Edinburgh in the late 1780s.
Strong female leads include the widow Charlotte Leadam and the farmer’s daughter Lucy Leadam.
Sinclair is a story of love, loss and redemption. Prodigal son James Sinclair is transformed by his experience of being shipwrecked on the way to India to make his fortune. Obstacles to love and happiness include ambition, conflict with a God, temptation and betrayal. Remorse brings restitution and recovery. Sinclair is an extraordinary book. It will immerse you in the world of 18th century London where the rich and the poor are treated with kindness and compassion by this passionate Scottish doctor and his widowed landlady, the owner of the apothecary shop in Tooley Street. Sinclair is filled with twists and tragedies, but it will leave you feeling good.
Her debut novel Sinclair is available on Amazon.
Click here to Get your copy today.
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