Stephanie Thornton: Writing Historical Fiction Part II – Throw Your Characters Under the Wagon/Chariot/Bus

This is part II from our July featured author. Read part I here.

No matter your genre, you must be willing to make your
characters’ lives downright miserable. Yes, there can be a happily ever after,
but before that, your protagonists must lament the day they were born.
Nothing should be easy for them!
Of course, this makes your life as a writer both more
difficult, and also more deviously enjoyable. (And you should feel free to
wreak the vengeance you wish you could rain down on the poor soul who dared cut
you off in traffic or the fool who laughed at you when you spilled your cartoon
of strawberries all over the floor at the grocery store. Make your characters
pay for all those transgressions!)
All these trials and tribulations your characters must now
endure go back to the plot, which we discussed last week. Now the new question
is: how do your poor characters react? And what if you’re having trouble
deciding how your characters will react to a particularly sticky situation? Or
even just an everyday dilemma?
(Let it be known before I answer this that I am an
unabashed, unapologetic history nerd. I also really like Star Trek.)
I’ve run into this more than once and my tried-and-true
solution is to find a historical model for my character. In The Secret History:
A Novel of Empress Theodora
, Emperor Justinian gave me fits once or twice,
until I realized that I could base part of his personality on Theodore
Roosevelt. (Whom I love!)
TR had a game he played with his children where they would
plot a straight course through their yard (or the wilderness), and no matter
what, they had to push on even if that meant climbing trees and fences, jumping
boulders, and fording rivers.
Historically, during Justinian’s reign, protestors burned
down the majority of Constantinople’s major buildings and tried to remove him
from the throne before the revolt was quashed. (With Theodora’s help.) So how
did he react the next day when he saw his city smoldering?
He pushed forward with his building campaigns, charting a
straight course. This was an opportunity to rebuild, to put his boundless
energy to good use and recreate everything that had burned down on a grander
scale. He didn’t look back and bemoan the deaths of the protesters, but forged
on to become the greatest emperor in Byzantine history, just as Roosevelt
became our nation’s greatest progressive president. I also used one of
Roosevelt’s quotes to help guide some of Justinian’s later decisions and
Far better it is to
dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure,
than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because
they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.
So the moral of the story is that, while your characters may
succeed in the end, it better be a darn bumpy road before they get there!

Stephanie Thornton is a writer and history teacher who has
been obsessed with infamous women from ancient history since she was twelve.
She lives with her husband and daughter in Alaska, where she is at work on her
next novel. Her first book,
The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora is
now available in bookstores and online. Visit her website at
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