Creating Historical Characters

http://desktoppub.about.com/b/a/images/stickfigure.gifHow does a fiction writer create characters?  Well, we make them up.  I have a certain way of creating characters by playing “what if” with plot elements and character traits.  For example, what would it take to make a man lie when he’s honest to the core?  Or betray his friend when loyalty is his hallmark?

But here I am, working on characters for this novel that are people who really lived.  Now, granted, some of our historical figures are pretty fully drawn from chronicled sources, from the documents and letters they wrote and from the actions they took.  We know a bit about Paul Revere.  We know even more about Samuel Adams and John Hancock.  They’re already “living characters” that can be simply dropped into the actions of April 19th.  We have much of what they said and wrote about that day.

For example, we know that, when Paul Revere arrived at the Clarke House to warn Adams and Hancock, he was stopped in the front yard by Will Munroe who told him that the family had retired and to not make so much noise.  Revere replied “Noise? You’ll have noise enough before long.”

But how do we “create” characters like Ruth Harrington?  The only thing we know about her is that her husband died in her arms on her front steps.  Or what about Nathaniel Mulliken or Samuel Prescott?  We know enough to know these people were heroes.  But we don’t know what foods they liked, what silly habits they had.  We don’t know their fears, their passions.  And so, we have to make some universal assumptions.

My commitment in this project is to do my best to portray these people accurately, to do them honor.  They deserve that.