Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Understanding Your Characters...

This post is tailored specifically to those who are developing characters in historical fiction, but is, I believe, applicable to the craft of understanding your characters in general.  It also builds on some previous posts I have done about women in the revolutionary war.

You can read the earlier posts (I hope you do!) about Molly Pitcher(s) and their role not only during the war (camp followers) but after the war (loyal wives, in-the-moment-soldiers).  Given how these women are celebrated, as I noted earlier, it is not surprising that Deborah Sampson was given little attention for many decades:  she didn't fit neatly into the women-who-followed-her-husband-into-combat mold that felt "safe" to 19th century readers and writers.

When I began the research for my first novel, Revolutionary, I wanted to look at as wide a range of sources as I could on Deborah.  The earliest material is filtered through her biographer, Herman Mann and the later material is filtered through the biases and predispositions of the era in which they were written.

So here's the first part of the craft lesson for writers of historical fiction: make sure you look at your "real life" characters not just from one historical vantage point.  Get the fullest picture of them that you can by considering how they were written about by their contemporaries, by their children, by their friends, by their rivals, and by later writers.  It is poor history (and poor historical fiction) to rely only on one source or from sources all from the same era (even if it is "eye-witness").

For Deborah, two visual images will suffice to prove my point.  Here they are:

Both are early-mid 19th century depictions of Deborah Sampson that accompanied pamphlets or short writings on her. In both she is in uniform and with a weapon (or two!).  But, as those who read the earlier blogposts might note... she is also posed near a cannon.  It is not impossible that Deborah might have been near cannons in her service.  Certainly, she was at sites that would have had them.  But it is quite hard to argue that she used cannons at all.  Cannons were for pitched battle and Deborah was involved in small skirmishes only.  (Granted, she did claim to have been at Yorktown, or Mann placed her there, or both, but this is not true.)

So, when I was researching her character, I asked myself: why is she depicted this way?  What is being said about her?  I believe that both artists are making a subtle nod to the Molly Pitcher(s) legends.  By putting Deborah near a cannon, they are indicating to the viewer that this is a woman on the battlefield.  It is somewhat comforting -- suggesting that she served in the familiar and acceptable manner -- to have her depicted thus.  Much more comforting than Deborah just waving a sword or holding a gun, I'd argue.

To leave my particular case and look at craft in general, what I'd suggest is this.  Read (and look) widely as you explore your historical character.  Chip away at bias.  Consider how your character has shifted and been reinvented over the course of history.  And then...

Take good stock of how you wish to depict your character.  Realize that you are situated on this continuum that you have just explored.  Your depiction will be no less biased, no less a product of your own time and expectations (and this, I would argue is true for fictional characters that aren't historical) than any other.  It is better to be upfront and aware of your bias though.

In my own case, I knew that being transgender, I would come to Deborah's story from a particular angle.  Likewise, writing with a 21st-century understanding of gender and women's rights, I would also be biased against certain depictions of her and want to show her actions as reasonable and even virtuous -- quite the opposite of how many of her contemporaries saw her and wrote about her.

In order to fully understand, fully develop, and fully realize your characters, you need to understand your own perspective on that character!

Let me know what you think... Leave a Comment!

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