Wednesday, November 23, 2016

When Historical Characters Don't Do What You Want by Heather Day Gilbert

Sometimes our characters won't march easily onto the page. Today, author Heather Day Gilbert shares her experience with one of those characters. -- Sandy

Heather: There's a reason it took me three years to publish my second Viking historical novel, which is based heavily on the Icelandic sagas:

I couldn't change history.

The first novel in the series was easier—God's Daughter is based on Gudrid, a real Christian Viking woman who sailed to North America. She was known for her ability to get along with strangers, for her beauty, and for her strong Christianity.

But Book 2, Forest Child, was not based on Gudrid's story. It was based on her sister-in-law's story—Freydis, the daughter of Eirik the Red. Freydis was known for being a domineering woman, a violent warrior, and for being difficult to get along with.

Not to mention, she did something totally unthinkable. I had to merge the facts of her story into my fictional tale, AND I had to make her a character we wanted to root for.

It was a daunting task and I'll be the first to say that I stalled in writing the book, even though Freydis haunted me both in my dreams and waking hours. WHY did you do what you did, I would yell at her (mostly when I was alone in my car). My readers kept asking when Book 2 would release. Below is a pic of one of my most avid Viking readers, Kelly, when she finally got her early reader copy of Forest Child

I also write in first person present tense. So as I pondered Freydis' tale, I had to get into her head in a way I really didn't want to.

But something happened when I started writing her story. She came alive to me, even as Gudrid did, and I started to see her motivations. I started to understand what might drive a woman to do what she did.
I started to see her heart.

Sometimes, history doesn't turn out the way you want. For instance, I can think of several Bible stories that didn't play out in a cheery way. It's so sad that Moses never got to step foot in the Promised Land. It's hard to see Israelites being punished heavily for the same kinds of mistakes I know we would make.  It stinks that Solomon blotted his record of wisdom by marrying so many women and allowing them to worship other gods.

 But those stories are there for us to learn from.

For historical authors, we have to take real facts/details and merge them with a driving storyline that will bring history alive in a way that is fresh. We have some leeway in the interpretation of some facts (with the Viking era, the facts are few and far between—and still disputed), but in the end, especially if we're writing about real people, we have to be true to their stories. We have to let them make huge mistakes and do things we wish they hadn't done.

In the end, it was God who helped me bring Freydis' story to life in a way that was both relatable and redemptive. I fretted and worried my early readers might not "get" her...but it turns out, they're loving this book. And now they want to read more about Viking times. 

This is the ultimate reward for the historical author—when your novels spur readers to learn more about the time period you're so passionate about.

So be brave, historical author. Tell those tales that need to be told, spanning the years with characters that come alive for our readers.

Have you ever dealt with a character, historic or contemporary, who was hard to make likeable, but one you must write?


HEATHER DAY GILBERT, a Grace Award winner and bestselling author, writes novels that capture life in all its messy, bittersweet, hope-filled glory. Find out more at