As an author of historical fiction, my work must—almost by definition—begin with a concept. Am I going to write a gritty saga about the women who flew as combat pilots for Russia in the Second World War (I did and it was great fun)? Am I going to write a sweeping fictionalized biography of Joan of Arc? A dark and twisty Tudor-era mystery? I have to be grounded in that first to know what I’m doing. That’s the easy part in many ways. But as many writers will tell you, a story isn’t just something happening. It’s something happening to someone. Even in the case of a Joan of Arc biography, you have to decide who your Joan is. Bold and fearless or tentative and unsettled? These are all decisions you have to make.
I was recently asked if I could change direction on my work-in-progress. As in, shelve what I was working on and start over on something very, very different. Fine by me, I can come back to the other project when the market is right for it. I’m every bit as excited about the new project, and being flexible is definitely an indispensable trait for anyone in this crazy business. I was set to chat with my new editor the following week to discuss the new idea, so I had work to do. In order to nail the call I’d have to figure out one thing: Who is my protagonist?
I spent half a day driving around trying to get hold of a research book I’d need to get a better sense of the history. You might wonder why I needed the research book to figure that out. My protagonist—an invention of my own brain--had nothing to do with the dates, facts, and figures that I’d find in the book. But as I read about the life and times my unknown protagonist was living in, my brain would automatically try to figure out the type of woman who would be daunted by, and eventually thrive, under the stressors I would put on her. As I read, I began to ask myself what she looked like, what she wore, where she lived. Definitely a place to start. She also insisted that her name be Ruby. Sure thing, girl, you’re the star of the show.
But I had to ask her some deeper questions.
What do your days look like? Who are your friends? Do you have any friends? What is your secret pleasure? What embarrasses you? What annoys you? And even bigger: what do you want out of life? I’m not one to necessarily spend a lot of time writing character sketches, though I almost always take some notes. I prefer to have these ideas in my head and let them come out as I actually draft the story. Sometimes my characters really add another dimension in the second draft and that’s always a fun discovery. I’m a voracious plotter, so this organic development is how I regain the thrill of discovery that I lose by knowing the general direction of the narrative.
So once I have some ideas in my head, I open up my trusty OneNote Workbook that I use for everything (timelines, lists of names, interesting articles, and so on) and make a sheet for the protagonist. I Google for pictures to find someone who looks as I envision my character would, perhaps searching for images of some items in their life that are important as well and paste it all in the page. I might throw together a few paragraphs about my protagonist’s thoughts on life and goals we’ll see unveil in the story. Maybe some bigger goals we won’t see. Then I get to work clickety-clacking on some chapters.
Seems easy, right? Well some characters are easier to crack than others. A prime example of a difficult character is the protagonist from my upcoming novel, Daughters of the Night Sky. My protagonist, Katya, is an officer in the Red Army. She’s driven to learn how to fly from the time she’s a child because life has forced her to grow up before her time. She was focused, determined, and married to her work. She and I didn’t have a lot in common, and she was pretty closed-lipped (as any good officer in the Red Army would have been), so coaxing the character onto the page took some time.
I spent a lot more time doing freewriting exercises when I couldn’t reflect her personality on the page. Writing letters from Katya to important people in her life was one that helped a lot. Even then, my redheaded pilot was a character that really needed a second draft to add the final dimension into her personality. Even tweaks in drafts six and seven brought out some spark in her. It was a challenge, but I think she came into herself at long last. It was definitely worth the struggle, but thank goodness this new girl, Ruby, is a whole lot chattier than Katya ever was.
So, what tips and tricks do you use to breathe life into your protagonist?
Share with the crowd!
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Aimie K. Runyan is a historian and author who writes to celebrate history’s unsung heroines. She is the author of two previous historical novels: Promised to the Crown and Duty to the Crown. She is active as an educator and a speaker in the writing community and beyond. She lives in Colorado with her wonderful husband and two (usually) adorable children. To learn more about Aimie and her work, please visit www.aimiekrunyan.com.