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Brooke Shaffer

Author, Ski Patroller, and Pasta-Eater Extraordinaire

Writing Historical Fiction: Who

In this installment of WHF, we're going to discuss people, characters and historical figures.

Your first instinct might be to include as many famous historical figures as possible.  Civil War?  Not without Honest Abe.  World War II?  Need me some Churchill and Eisenhower, right?  Not necessarily.

First off, you need to figure out your main character.  Who is the plot centered around?  Where is the character going to go, and how is he or she going to develop?

Let's say you're writing about the Civil War.  Your whole plot is basically a story from the front lines, both sides. Your first main character is a young man, twenty years old, who goes to fight for the Union.  The second main character is a comparable character in the Confederate Army.  Maybe they both have girls they're trying to impress back home.

It is immediately clear that you're probably not going to be talking to Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis in the first couple chapters, if at all.  Your main characters' sphere of influence is going to be restricted to family and immediate superiors, the other grunts in his unit.  Maybe you use the girlfriends as home field points of view, but they're not going be talking to generals or presidents either.

Now then, maybe your main characters are phenomenal soldiers and rise through the ranks, perform admirably, and carry on past the Civil War.  Then you can start bringing in higher brass, more famous names.  Maybe your characters become politicians and speak to the president.

Don't add in famous people randomly just to say that they're in the story.  Now then, that isn't to say that you have to cut out all things famous.  Maybe your soldiers attend the Gettysburg Address.  If it is a natural progression of the plot, then it is entirely appropriate, even demanded.  Your characters probably aren't going to sit down and have afternoon tea with Lincoln afterwards, but it is an appropriate use of character.

If you're all bummed about not being able to use Lincoln or Lee or Grant, don't despair.  Look up old actual Civil War rosters.  Find the units, find the commanders.  There is a wealth of information out there about history and ancestry.  Maybe you only get bare minimum information, a name and birth date and some scattering of other tidbits, or maybe you find a whole treasure trove.  So maybe your Union soldier gets bumped from infantry to cavalry because you can find out more about his commander.  Maybe your Confederate soldier goes from infantry to the medic tent.  That's the beauty of historical fiction is that sometimes the truth is more fun.

So, when considering who to include in your historical fiction, look at the perspective of the main character, his initial sphere of influence, and where and how that sphere changes and expands.  Consider which events your character is likely to encounter, which we'll cover more in a future installment.

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