Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction
Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com
For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.
Friday, December 17, 2021
Friday, December 10, 2021
As someone fascinated by human behavior, writing complex novels rich in characters has always been a feature of my style. Yet character rich novels can all too easily get bogged down in a plethora of sub-plots, and too much detail about secondary characters can detract from the effectiveness of the novel. So over the years, I've tried to become more economical in my treatment of peripheral characters, i.e. those not at the center of the novel. In doing so, I've found it useful to think of characters fitting into a pyramid with the main protagonist(s) at the pinnacle, and the "cast of thousands" at the bottom. Below is a short description of how I try (not always successfully!) to handle these various categories of supporting characters and some examples from my writing.
Friday, December 3, 2021
Antagonists aren’t necessarily evil. They are simply characters that oppose — for whatever reason — the protagonists of the novel and/or get in the way of the protagonist achieving his/her goals.
Generally, I draw on my own experience to create protagonists, which means depicting characters similar to people who I have encountered over the years. That doesn’t mean they were necessarily people I have personally clashed with, since my characters don’t all have the same ambitions, much less weaknesses and characteristics, that I have.
In my current work-in-progress, Lancaster Skipper, I have modeled the female antagonist after myself, knowing and recognizing that I have a personality that rubs many people the wrong way. Fiona is ambitious and determined to be taken seriously as a professional at the price of seeming heartless and opinionated. Obviously, I identify with Fiona and like her in many ways, yet she hurts my protagonist and makes her life more difficult. The reader is supposed to side with the female protagonist not Fiona.
In the Jerusalem Trilogy, Balian faces antagonists on two levels. First and most obviously, he faces the Sultan Saladin, who ultimately destroys his entire world. But Saladin is not a personal enemy. He is more a political or professional opponent than an antagonist gnawing at Balian’s soul. Thus, in the novels, Saladin is more a secondary character than an antagonist. Being a complex and controversial historical figure, I sought to portray him as accurately as possible.
Balian's more intimate enemy in the Jerusalem Trilogy, the real antagonist, is his older brother, the historical Baldwin d’Ibelin, Lord of Ramla. Yet even here, despite the fact that Ramla and Balian clash and are in many ways opposites, I seek to explain Ramla’s behavior and expose the emotions that are eating at him and making him act the way he does. Ultimately, I want the reader to understand and sympathize with Ramla too — just not as much as they sympathize with Balian.
Yet arguably the best example of an effective antagonist is John d'Ibelin, the "Old" Lord of Beirut in my Rebels of Outremer Series. The historical John d'Ibelin is an attractive hero -- a legal scholar and leader of men, a man who incurred the wrath of the Holy Roman Emperor for his staunch and unwavering defense of the rule-of-law. Contemporaries praised his wisdom and restraint; modern historians have compared him to St. Louis. Yet, in my series, he is the antagonist of his eldest son -- the impetuous, emotional and not always obedient Balian of Beirut. The interplay between these two very different characters gives the series much of its emotional power. The books would be much less colorful, attractive and realistic without the multifaceted and splendid antagonist.
For more about my Rebels of Outremer series featuring John d'Ibelin and his son Balian see: https://www.helenapschrader.com/rebels-against-tyranny.html
For more about the Jerusalem Trilogy starting with Balian d'Ibelin: Knight of Jerusalem visit: https://www.helenapschrader.com/balian-d-ibelin.html
In addition to playing a role in Lancaster Skipper, Fiona is a character in Lack of Moral Fibre one of three novellas included in Grounded Eagles. To find out more about Grounded Eagles visit: https://www.helenapschrader.com/grounded-eagles.html
Friday, November 26, 2021
Creating credible female characters in a historical setting where they do not enjoy the same freedoms and status as women of the present can be a challenge. Based on the historical fiction I have read, many authors "solve" the problem simply by making their heroines "unusual" or "ahead of their time." That is, making them modern women and explaining them away as "exceptional" because of some circumstance in their childhood. (Usually a mother who died in childbed, no brothers and an indulgent father.) While that approach is easy, it generally detracts from the authenticity of a novel. I've found that making a greater effort to make women conform to their own age is far more rewarding.
The key — as with most things in historical fiction — is understanding the period you are writing about. In depth research, particularly reading first-hand accounts by women of the period or biographies of women from the period, will usually enable a writer to start seeing the world through the eyes of women of the period. This is critical because to write credible characters, male or female, one must not depict them with thoughts, feelings and ambitions dictated by our modern understanding of what is right and wrong, but rather with their own values and expectations.
Research will aid the author in two ways:
First, much of what we think we know about a period of history may be hearsay, oversimplifications, propaganda or based on discredited sources. An excellent example of this is the common misperception that women in the Middle Ages were “mere chattels.” This is utter nonsense easily disproved by any serious (or even fairly superficial) research into the legal status, economic role and biographies of women of the period. Women could be sovereigns, lords, guild masters, and independent businesswomen. They took oaths of fealty, commanded men, inherited and controlled wealth including land, had professional training, were literate and numerate and engaged in professions such as medicine. In short, a novelist writing about women in the Middle Ages might not find them so different from modern women as she thinks before doing her research.
Second, however, in depth and particularly biographical research should enable a novelist to start to identify with and empathize with her female characters even in those areas and on those topics where their attitudes, values and expectations do differ more radically from our own. There is no question, for example, that women in WWII with very few exceptions were paid far less than their male counterparts and were restricted in their role. There was nothing like equality of opportunity and socially many customs were patronizing. Yet, when reading the memoirs of women in the Second World War the thing that jumped out at me was the enthusiasm and excitement they felt to be doing so much. While we look at their roles like the pessimist, seeing only what they did not have, they almost universally looked on their new empowerment like the optimist, seeing what they did have.
Likewise, the heroines of my WWII novels are far from “liberated” or powerful, but they don’t spend their time bemoaning their fate either, preferring to take the opportunities they have and contribute to the great national cause of which they saw themselves a part. Find out more about my WWII novels at: https://www.helenapschrader.com/wwii.html
Friday, November 19, 2021
As a historical novelist, I am drawn to historical events in which humans — ordinary humans — have done something extraordinary. I suppose one might argue that that is the very definition of “heroes.” Yet, thinking of them in that way can detract from an empathetic and compelling portrayal.
Let me give you an example. In the Battle of Britain a few hundred RAF pilots changed the course of history by halting Hitler’s aggression. As Winston Churchill famously said: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” But those young men were extraordinarily ordinary and not terribly heroic — except in their dogged determination to “do their job” despite the odds against them. I’ve read too many novels that, seeing these young men as “heroes,” transform them into superheroes. In other words, rather than showing them as immature young men with fears, insecurities, and underdeveloped flying and fighting skills, depict them all as hot-shot “aces.” On their very first combat sortie, they go out and shoot down four or five enemy aircraft. That’s not the way it was. It took time to learn how to dogfight, and most RAF pilots were shot down more than once before they were able to register their first victory — assuming they lived that long. Even top-scoring aces didn’t shoot down more than one or two enemy aircraft in a sortie. Most RAF pilots in the Battle of Britain were insecure when their arrived, all of them experienced fear and terror at times, and the bulk of them were also immature and often terribly irresponsible. They did silly things and they made lots of mistakes. I think that showing them as the immature, fallible, and yet frightened yet enthusiastic and irrepressible young men they were is both more historically accurate and makes better fiction. By making them less heroic as individuals, the reader finds it easier to fully identify and empathize with them.
On the other hand, some heroes are not simply “doing their job” but rather behave in a way that is extraordinary. They do something positive that is above and beyond the call of duty or reasonable expectations. Such heroes, I believe, are most effective in fiction if they are not depicted as something other-worldly, supernatural, or inherently different from the rest of us, but humanized instead.
An example of this is my Balian d’Ibelin. Ibelin was without a doubt an extraordinary man. Although a landless younger son, he married a dowager queen, founded a powerful dynasty, and ultimately earned the respect of both Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. He defended Jerusalem against Saladin’s victorious army with no knights or trained troops, depending on women, boys and priests to man the walls. Yet his moment of greatest heroism, in my opinion, was when he offered himself as a hostage to save 15,000 paupers from slavery. For the reader to fully grasp just what that gesture meant and cost, however, they first have to care about Balian as a husband and a father. He has to be human first — and heroic second.
In both examples, the key is to view and to treat characters as fallible humans who do heroic things rather than as heroes, much less superheroes.
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