10 Hardball Interview Questions for Historical Characters

There has been a lot written about creating well-rounded characters through interviews. Nat Russo's post How Do You Find a Character's Voice is an excellent starting point.

Update: I've schedule a #KnowYourCharacters Twitter Party for July 16, 2015 at 3PM Central (US) time. Click here for more info.

Since my characters all live in Colonial and Revolutionary America, I decided to add to the list. Some of my questions could leave my characters sweating.

1. Do you go to church? If so which one, and how devout are you?

I started with this one because my books are all (so far) set in the 18th c, a time when nearly everyone would have had a belief of some sort. This was the time of the Enlightenment and a rise in beliefs like Deism, so some of those beliefs could be quite interesting. Also, it seems to me, that there were far more differences in beliefs between the established and emerging churches of the day, e.g. Anglican, Baptist, Episcopalian, than there are today. (I admit, I may just not be paying enough attention to my own time.)

2. How long has your family been in America?

A character whose family has been here for generations is likely to see the world differently than one who has just arrived.

3. Why and how did they arrive?

It could be germane to the character's personality if, for instance, his or her family fled another country for religious reasons. Keep in mind, however, that even in the land of religious freedom, there were still groups, e.g., Catholics, who experienced a fair amount of "unfairness" such as not being able to hold public office. Hard to call that "persecution" as compared to what generations past had endured, but I can imagine it rankled.

4. How large is your family, and are you with them?

Probably self-explanatory, but families those days could be quite large or small. They could also be spread across several countries. Family ties in another country could lead to divided loyalties that prove useful for character motivation.

5. Have you ever lost anyone you love?

Death surrounded people in Colonial America. Not sure offhand what the infant mortality rate would have been, but certainly far higher than today. By the time we reach the 18th c, I suspect mortality rates between England and America had evened out somewhat. If you lived in rural parts of American, perhaps even lower because disease would have been harder to spread. So far, I've only used small pox, a rampant disease that threatened to wipe out our forces during the Revolution, to kill off family members.

6. Do you consider yourself an American or an Englishman/woman?

The answer to this will tell you quite a bit about your character. Since my characters are Colonial/Revolutionary Americans, it's vital that I have this answered.

7. What skills do you have?

I don't purposefully ask my characters this, but in the course of writing, they always tell me. For example, Alexandra in Le Chevalier, ran a tavern, but couldn't cook anything but stew. The hero, le Chevalier de Mont Trignon, learned to cook quite well from his four sisters. (And sew, too, which came in useful in bringing the two of them together.)

8. Can you fight? Are you willing to?

The 18th c was still a relatively violent time. Your characters might be fighters, or they might be pacifists. It's important to know their weapon of choice (women, too) as it could come in handy. Knowing what weapons they are not good at wielding also comes in handy. In the manuscript I just submitted, the hero, Neil, is terrible at swords, yet finds himself facing down master swordsmen far more often than he'd like.

Quick aside: If anyone knows of a good book on writing fight scenes using swords, let me know. Like Neil, it's a weak spot for me.

9. How do you feel about the conflict with England?

You may get an earful on this one if you write in the same time period as I do. Due to the increasing availability of newspapers (no more unbiased than they are today) and the rise in literacy rates, the American public would have been quite well informed (and misinformed) about the day's events. Taverns make a great place to discuss such things—as well as decide what to do about them.

Of course, then as now, there will be some that just want it all to go away. To be true to human nature, I try to give all my characters a little bit of ambivalence. They may not show it on the surface, but inside, they can be quite conflicted.

10. Have you been affected by the conflict?

This could be quite simple, such as a character who loved tea, and is now forced to drink something else (lots of weird substitutes) because of the nonimportation agreements. Or it could be quite dire. Perhaps they are suspected of noncompliance with the agreements and they fear retaliation.

Quick historical note: Although plenty of property was destroyed, I've yet to read of anyone who was actually killed by the Rebels. (If you know of anyone, let me know, as I strive for historical accuracy as much as possible.) One man died from an infected sliver in his groin after being run out of town on a rail, but it was not a direct nor premeditated murder. However, as they say, hindsight is 20/20. Loyalists would certainly have feared for their lives.

Bonus Question: How do you feel about your place in society?

Someone who is more versed on theology and history would have to tell me if there is a correlation, but the Enlightenment seemed to bring with it a certain societal upheaval - perhaps a yearning to be truly free. Feminism wouldn't be what we know it to be today, but no one can tell me that women like Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren and the many other Daughters of Liberty were not feminists of the highest order. It's possible that some of them wished for more power to make a difference while others were probably quite content using what they had. And use it they did!

This question should be asked of any character — the young man who grew up the son of an indentured servant, the Catholic, the Jew, the man or woman who grew up in the West Indies instead of the colonies on the mainland, the frontiersman, the merchant, the farmer, the slave.

Despite America being far, far more of a meritocracy than England or other European countries, your position in society could still be confining at times.

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