For me, characters more than plot define a book and determine its success. As a reader, if I really like a character, the plot can be simple, but if I don't, the best plot in the world cannot capture my interest. As a novelist, I write two
kinds of historical fiction, biographical novels and non-biographical novels requiring different types of characters.
The biographical novels are based on the lives of historical figures and the
major characters are indeed real, historical figures. The non-biographical
novels are novels set in a known/documented historical context but using
fictional characters to describe and explore the historical era/event. In short, my characters fall into two categories: historical figures and invented people. Yet they are not really as different as one may think.
A novelist writing about a famous figure from the past usually interprets and expands upon the historical record. A novelist will fill in gaps in the historical record by interpolating between two known data points. A novelist usually attempts to explain behavior by imagining possible motives and to make a character more comprehensible by suggesting emotional states-of-mind. A novelist will certainly invent dialogue and may also invent secondary characters to interact with the historical figure in order to make that character more understandable.
While I presume that most of the above is widely known, it may come as a surprise to many readers that I view some of fictional characters as no less — indeed arguably more — “real” than the historical ones. The reason for this is that some of my fictional characters — individuals not found in any historical record — are so vivid and so complete when they form in my imagination that I question that I could have created them.
Yes, there are characters that I create and manipulate at will, but there are others that direct me on what they did and said and thought and felt. I cannot do with them as I please. I cannot make them behave in ways they do not want, nor can I put words into their mouths. On the contrary, they tend to want to take over a novel and push it in the direction they want. They certainly provide much of the key dialogue and the plot.
Working with them is always a delight. For one thing they are full of surprises. They greatly enrich my stories because they have more wit and humor than I. An example of this kind of character is Robin Priestman in Where Eagles Never Flew.
Another advantage of these characters is that the writing comes easily and is almost always print-ready — but only those scenes seen from their point of view, of course. Since my novels are complex and I prefer portraying historical events from a variety of perspectives because I believe this enriches our understanding of the subject, these scenes written by characters still have to be embedded in the wider context of the novel and that can be hard work when dealing with strong personalities.
Another problem is that I cannot ignore them. This past year I had wrapped up, completed and edited two novellas that I planned to release under the title Grounded Eagles. I had already turned to my next project, a novel about the Berlin Airlift. I was very happy with this project, going back to research I had done for my non-fiction book The Blockade Breakers. Indeed, I’d written more than 100 pages of this new work with Kit Moran disrupted everything.
And as if that weren’t enough, having completed Lack of Moral Fibre both as a stand-alone ebook and a component part of Grounded Eagles, Moran insisted that I write about what happened to him after the incident in November 1943. Fortunately, he’s a delightful young man and I don’t mind spending time with him and his Georgina, but he has been disruptive of all my planning!
For more information about both books see: https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew