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From the bones up: Developing historical characters

Developing characters for historical or historical fantasy fiction is as important as having accurate base facts for your time period and location. Whether your characters are fictional or historical figures, it will be hard to make them realistic for your readers if you don’t have a solid foundation to base them on. Finding information on people who left no written record behind can be as difficult. Looking at their contemporaries and building a loose comparison based on similar life experiences is the key.

People that walked around in past time periods had vastly different life experiences than you and I have had. Stripping away the obvious, such as technology, health, politics, and general economic welfare, leaves us with how people managed daily life without such advances. Their worlds were smaller. Lives were harder. And the food! Fusion menus, refrigeration and speedy distribution networks weren’t heard of, so people sourced most meal ingredients from more local markets.

A character’s potential past needs to be researched whether the story is contemporary or historical. Current affairs for the time setting of the story and past affairs that may have impacted on your character are important.

I came across a story and a podcast about individual convicts and started pondering how such a past would shape a person. Treatment of convicts, throughout time, border on horrific. How does a person with that experience respond to freedom, a mundane life, the complexities of relationships?

I first read about Charles ‘Boney’ Anderson at Tales from the Grave . Samantha Elley wrote an article outlining his tortured life and I recommend you read it for fuller details. Boney’s life was hard from the start, culminating in him being transported to Port Jackson in 1834 for seven years. Life didn’t get any easier as he was bounced around from prison to prison, flogged, chained, and eventually committed to an asylum. A pretty shit life. Yet for a little while there, some light shone in, of all places, the Norfolk Island penal settlement.

Boney gained his freedom in 1854 and there his recorded history ends. We may never know whether he lived much longer, ended up back behind the bars, drunk in some gutter, or happy on a plot of land somewhere in the Outback.

Unfortunately, patchy records are par for the norm once a convict leaves the prison system (unless they go on to infamy or make a sparkling comeback into civilisation). To solve this problem, researching the lives of a variety of convicts (or anyone really) can be helpful. This is where the Convict Australia by Jennifer Twemlow comes in handy. This is a podcast series focussing on the lives of several convicts, prison ships, documentation (tickets of pardon etc). Easily enough research here to delve into and create a multifaceted character.

It pays to look outside the usual written historical sources and podcasts are coming into their own with sharing information as they can talk directly with historians and other experts about their research. Hearing the passion in voices discussing their pet topics, insights and years of study in conversation is a great way to build on character knowledge and develop those fledgling personalities.

Further reading/listening links below.


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