Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Sins of the Father: Historical Influence in Characterization

To create a historical character of memorable depth, I am increasingly of the opinion that it is not just their own particular place and time that needs to be researched and incorporated, but the cultural, political and social baggage that accompany them.

In my recently completed novel The Goodwin Agenda, the Parisian characters are scarred by a decade of warmongering, the dizzying change of governmental bodies (many of whom executed their opponents via Madame la Guillotine or otherwise), the terrors of the Counter-Revolution, road-side killings and massacres in the Vendee; famine and plague follow hard upon the heels of political turbulence and dark mutterings of discontent begin to be heard again in the faubourgs that served as points of ignition during the Revolution. My Parisian characters came to the first chapter with their nerves already stretched to the breaking point - the glorious republic that had been promised them (Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!) had eroded into some semblance of a militarized imperial aristocracy where Napoleon begins to drape himself in all the excesses he had professed to despise.  This réalité was a whole other thing altogether. 

The situation in London is also viewed through the lens of past transgressions - particularly the oppression of the Irish and how this sets up the initial conflict between William Pitt and the Irish rebel Wolfe Trant. The latter is released from Newgate Prison, a formidable mass of ferocious anger directed with laser-intensity towards the English; it is a fury born hundreds of years previous and nourished and nurtured throughout succeeding generations. 

So while I am feverishly eager to begin writing my next novel (San Francisco 1850), I attempt self-constraint, recollecting how the understanding of the historical period that preceded my characters in The Goodwin Agenda, a feeling of social and political trends and developments that influenced their attitudes and actions, deepened their aspect and improved the resultant depth of the novel itself. 

So I return to a comparative historical analysis of the Spanish and British colonial experience (Empires of the Atlantic World by J.H Elliott) looking for those political and cultural seeds that will give root to my next literary work. Elliott's history is beautifully written and offers intriguing insight into the start of things in colonial America. The attitudes that are being developed in late seventeenth-century New England and Virginia, further refined and transformed through the gristle-mill of the Revolution and the Civil War, will filter through my characters of mid-nineteenth century San Francisco: religious pluralism, emphasis on representative government, and a willful independence of spirit; a society of cultural diversity where each jostle for opportunity, to forge their way in a brand new world, each impelled and constrained by the prejudices and politics of those who came before. 

As writers formulate the characters of their literary landscape, there is always that question: what came before? What psychological scars do they carry? Scars that were communicated by their parents or by political winds that left them embittered and hostile? There is a depth in the beginning, in the introduction of a character, when one understands the sins of the father and how that influenced the son, when the past intertwines with the present to produce the complexity of an emotional response. Historical milieu renders an existing bias or attitude meaningful; a context, however, that cannot be applied with too heavy a hand, this is fiction after all and the primary imperative is to keep our readers actively engaged. The historical context for each character is nuanced, a delicate wisp here and there, the faint suggestion of an angst born beyond themselves: the anger of a previous generation that is passed down like a cherished heirloom, political sidelining that resulted in familial misfortune that continues to sit on the protagonists shoulder like a dark-whispering malefactor.


  1. The scar of Wolfe is well-defined: he feels he sent a platoon of innocent Irish laddies to their death. It works wonders; and the age-old antagonism serves as a fitting backdrop.

  2. Thank you Pim - I thought the nurtured legacy of hate provided the long-smoldering antagonism between the two characters, and also lent a rather delicious ambiguity in regards to the strength of their pact.