Monday, June 22, 2009

Real and Imagined

L.G.C. Smith

My books almost always have characters based on real historical figures. Occasionally I lose track of what’s generally known about them as opposed to what I’ve made up to make a strong story.

I’ve spent a good portion of the last few years in the imaginary company of a handful of 7th century Anglo-Saxon kings. This started as a ‘what if?’ question that arose while I was in England, near Chester, indulging one of my favorite hobbies, the study of English place names. In the process, something else entirely caught my attention.

In the early 7th century, there had been a dramatic battle in which Æthelfrith of Bernicia, the pagan king of what would become Northumbria, faced off against a coalition of British and Anglo-Saxon kings. According to Bede, more than a thousand monks from the nearby monastery at Bangor surrounded the battlefield to pray for his opponents’ victory, Æthelfrith ordered his men to kill them all.

This was a vicious act on an extreme scale even in a brutal time. I kept wondering about the character of a man who would do such a thing. What if, I thought, Æthelfrith, or any of the dozens of warlord kings of his time somehow landed in our lives? Here. Now. What place is there for men like this? If they didn’t land in jail, the only places I could see them fitting in would be military contexts.

It was only a hop and a skip to making up stories about exactly that happening, which left me having to flesh out the character of men about whom very little is known. Because they were real, and because there’s not a great deal I can infer about them aside from the handful of facts that have survived the centuries, I had a lot of work to do.

First, I had to know more about 7th century Britain. A lot more. As I read – history, archaeology, landscape studies, mythology, Anglo-Saxon literature, Old English linguistics, hagiographies, manuscript studies, ecclesiastical development, and more – I kept Æthelfrith and his colleagues in mind. I built a sense of their world. A limited sense. Unquestionably. I can’t know a character without knowing their world in as much detail as I can muster.

This is more of a limitation than not. Many, if not most, writers come to know their characters in more universal human terms, I think. Emotion is key. Unfortunately, I come to emotion slowly. I seem unable to leave my training as an ethnographer behind me. I want to know the contexts in which my characters lived before I can fathom how they dealt with feelings.

Once I get a developing vision of that context in place, I still don’t have enough on my 7th century warrior kings for any of them to carry a novel. So I write in what I imagine to be their voices. I have them tell me about themselves: the things they've done; the things of which they are most proud, and most ashamed. At this point, I draw not so much on anything directly related to my historical characters as figuring out what a certain personality type might have been like in another time and place. This is where the fiction starts.

I am aware of two characters as I do this. One is shadowy but real. The other grows ever clearer in my mind, but is made-up. They bear the same name, but they aren’t the same. My Æthelfrith was broken by his victory near Chester when he slew so many unarmed monks, though he would not admit as much. Shortly thereafter he lost everything he had worked a lifetime to achieve, his children scattered in exile, a hated foe claiming his crown.

But was the real Æthelfrith a broken ruler at the end of his life? There’s no way to know. It’s possible he was a sociopathic butcher who had no finer feelings whatsoever. I have a few arguments I could make against that, but I will never know. I only hope that if I ever hie myself off to an early medieval conference where there are people who know about the real Æthelfrith and not my character, I will remember how I learned so many details about him – I made them up.


Unknown said...

I love being able to make things up (in fiction)'s lying with approval. :)

Dana Fredsti said...

What a fascinating story, L.G.C! I love history...never have understood how people can find it boring. I like your take on what the monk slaying did to Æthelfrith, but I somehow think he had to be a sociopath to begin with. Anyway, great post!

Juliet Blackwell said...

It really is interesting to apply our modern "personality types" to historical, what fun to decide how much to make up about these "real" people! Love those details...

Sophie Littlefield said... could make me believe *anything*, seriously. If you told me Aeth hailed from the moon, I'd be completely down with that!