Let Your Characters Speak

Creating a fictional character’s voice in historical fiction can be similar to creating voice in any work of fiction, but how do you create the voice for the nonfiction characters in your historical fiction novel?

My solution is to let the historical characters speak for themselves. Find primary sources, letters, journals, diaries, interviews, quotes, and articles or books they wrote. Look for phrases they used themselves, mannerisms that were reflected in their writings, and personality traits that you can use for them in your own manuscripts.

For instance, in my historical fiction about Valley Forge, I have a real character named Cato Baker. Cato was an African American soldier in the Continental Army who spent the winter suffering at Valley Forge with the rest of the troops. He wrote home to tell about it! His letter, as found a collection of papers described in Strong and Brave Fellows by Glenn A. Knoblock, says:

Mr. Jeremiah Belknap, I have met with this opportunity [to] write to you and your family___. As these few lines have left me Sir, I am well (and) in good health and I thank God, for it [is] of his good will to hath been my guard in all these battles I have been in and I had the small pox in Valley Forge last March___, but now I am of good health…

When Cato appears in my historical fiction novel, I let him speak with his very own words. He says things such as, “I have met with this opportunity,” and “I thank God for it is his good will,” and “I had the small pox but now I am of good health.”

Cato Baker, himself, helped me find the voice to use for him in my historical fiction. Let your nonfiction characters speak in their own voice, too.

-Contributed by Nancy I. Sanders


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