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


  1. You know, Heather, I've been thinking about Forest Child--which I loved--and I think you handled the ugly side of Freydis's story with an astounding sensitivity and integrity. If you had left it out, or glossed over it, her need for forgiveness and redemption wouldn't be nearly as desperate. That particular scene was crucial to her character, and propelled the rest of the story. There was no way to avoid it, and though I'm sure it was painful to write, you do all of us a service by staying true to history.

    1. Thank you so much, Jocelyn! You know how I really had to be prayed through writing that scene! I wanted to handle it in an honest but not overly graphic way. I'm so thankful readers have seen that.

    2. I think "honest but not overly graphic" was exactly the right way to handle it. All that prayer made a difference!

  2. So glad you pushed through to complete that story that wouldn't leave you alone, Heather!

  3. I haven't had to write one, but one of my favourite historical fiction authors, Sharon Penman, has written a brilliant series about the Angevins (Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine), and a novel about Richard III of England. In both of those she really struggled with events that she had to write, but really didn't want to. Apparently it took three weeks for her to get Richard from his tent to the battle field on the day he would die, and I have joined her in railing against Henry II and Eleanor for some of the choices they made, particularly with each other.

  4. Heather, well done for wrestling with this story until you could tell it. You did a great job, and for all of Freydis' aggressive ways, she was a product of her time, fighting for respect in a male-dominated culture. Plenty of career women today fight a variant of that battle in the workplace, and while they aren't violent, they're still always struggling for every step they gain.

    As for Freydis' actions, you helped us understand her worldview enough that what she did made perfect sense to her (and thus to us in that context).

    The hardest character I've had to write was a serial killer in my first novel (contemporary: Heaven's Prey). The point of the novel is God's efforts to redeem him, and I had to tell the story in such a way that readers would be open to see him redeemed instead of being offended at the thought.

  5. Because of her difficulties, I loved Freydis more. Thank you for staying true to the story and your characters.

  6. I so enjoyed reading these comments!

    Janet, yes--that is the same struggle I had. We have to accept that God can and has forgiven murderers. But writing them in a way the reader can relate to is the tricky part. And yes! So many women today struggle with Freydis' core issues. That need to feel powerful, respected, and loved, coupled with that inability to admit their own weaknesses, even to themselves.

    And Fiction Aficionado, those books sound great--will look in those!

    And Joy, thank you. Freydis is now one of my fave characters that I've written.

    And thanks for commenting, Sandra and Peter! Nice to see everyone visiting today! :)


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