Ordinary People In Extraordinary Times: Writing Characters in Historical Fiction

Years ago, while I was still in college getting my MFA, one of my professor's offered a sage bit of writing advice. She told us to ask ourselves, why does my story start here? Why is this the opening sentence, the opening chapter? What is significant about this specific moment in time that we feel the reader needs to come in on? What makes this day or hour more interesting than all the others? Because that is why the reader is reading, right? To be a part of something interesting, entertaining, or at the very least, informative.

This bit of advice should be thought about when creating narrators and characters as well though, especially in regards to historical fiction. Why this family? Why this girl or boy, man or woman? Why should we be interested in this person over the millions and billions of people living in that time period? What makes them special?

It is estimated that almost 108 billion people have lived on this earth throughout all of human history. 99% of which lived ordinary lives, even while living through extraordinary times. Most of these people, despite the events going on in the world, would have rather boring stories. Their lives mattered to those they loved or hated, but who they are has been lost to the ravages of time. When I read a book, specifically historical fiction, I do not want to read about those ordinary people. We all lived through 9/11, which was terrible, but if you tried to write the story from my perspective it would be from 500 miles away and rather brief. I can think of a dozen people who would have a far more interesting viewpoint. This is not to say that our perspective's are bad or insignificant for they are important to us, only that they would not make an interesting read in a novel.

When you set an ordinary main character into an extraordinary setting, it is very easy for these great events to overshadow the characters. In a book I am currently reading, the story is set during the civil rights era. The main character, is rather ordinary. Extremely ordinary. So ordinary that her view of this time period feels overly naive and didactic. The main character acts as if prejudice, racism, segregation, are completely new things to her, despite being surrounded and confronted with it on a daily basis. By far the more interesting character is the secondary character, a black boy who has Freedom Riders living in his house. There is danger in him, defiance, a drive to understand, the need for more. I want his story.

Yes, we should have characters that the reader can relate to, but the result needn't be the everyday commoner. Why would I read a story about the ordinary? I see that everyday, living my life. If you are going to write historical fiction then I expect interesting things to happen to interesting people. Historical fiction is hard to write, it requires hours upon hours of careful research, the least we can do is make sure that the characters don't get so bogged down with history that they themselves become boring caricatures.