How To Write About Mythical and/or Historical Characters

D. S. Dahnim asked me a question, which I would like to answer.

I do have another question for you. :) I’ve always wondered what writers do when they’re writing about characters they themselves did not make up. For instance, if someone were to write a book about someone like King David or George Washington, or, in this case, Arthur and Merlin.

How does the writer know how to portray them when no-one knows what they were actually like? I’m not sure I would ever have the courage to do it, because I would be afraid that I was not being true to the essence of their character, that I was making them something entirely other than what they really were.

So how do you go about it? How do you “find out” what a historical or mythical person is like? Thanks in advance . . . :) The “inside scoop” is always exciting to learn!

D. S. Dahnim

My response…

D. S.,

Merlin's BladeWell, there is a difference between writing from a mythical person’s point of view vs. someone whom we know more about, like King David, who is a historical personage, and of whom we have lots of writings about his life and personal writings by him such as the Psalms. George Washington would be similar to King David, although there is a difference I will point out below.

For someone mythical, like King Arthur and Merlin, it is a lot easier because, although they may have been real, the earliest sources aren’t very reliable and scholars can’t find a lot of direct evidence for them.

Most of what we think of today as “King Arthur” or “Merlin” has been shaped by later writers (particularly the French) who fictionalized and popularized them.

They are no more “right” than you might be, and in fact, you will probably have better access to early translated writings then they did. Because of that uncertainty, you have a free hand to do much more as you please.

Still, I would suggest reading everything you can get your hands on about the characters and their historical milieu before you begin crafting your own versions.

For characters like George Washington you are also under the compulsion to read as much as you can, but you will, thankfully, have first hand writings to read, as well as the writing of people who knew them or observed the events they were involved in.

King David is slightly different, though, especially if you are interested in being published by the larger Christian publishers. Because you are fictionalizing someone in the Bible, you must tread more carefully.

That being said, here is a sampling of things that “shape” someone’s character that you should figure out:

  • Their culture’s political history … who have they fought? Who are their heroes?
  • Their culture’s religious history … whom do they worship? What conflicts exist? Who are their martyrs? What do they believe?
  • Their culture’s economic history … what do they make, what do they trade, what do they grow, what do they eat?
  • Their culture’s folklore … even if you are writing about a mythical person, that “mythical” person will have their own myths or legends that shape them.

Once you understand the wider forces that shape them (and I certainly haven’t created an exhaustive list above), then you need to look at and create the character’s own personal history.

A lot of this comes from Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake methodology, which can be found by clicking here.

  • Their age
  • Their parents, grandparents, ancestors, etc.
  • The traumatic events in their life
  • Their character traits
  • Their speech patterns
  • Their goals at the beginning of the book
  • Their goals once the book gets going
  • What epiphany happens to them in the book

For me, I spent 1 year researching the legends and history and crafting my plot. But even when I began writing, I still kept researching … there was just so much!

One of the things I did that really helped (after all of the above was finished) was to write a “diary” in 1st person from the perspective of the character.

The following is Merlin’s diary at the beginning of book 1. This is not part of the book, therefore you’re getting a sneak peek into my pre-writing. (I have also written a different diary entry at the beginning of book 2 because so much had changed.)

This is a very important step … to pull the character together and give him or her flesh and blood. To feel their pain, long for their yearnings, and begin to see life through their eyes.

(Note that this is a bit stream-of-conscious and hasn’t really been edited.)

I am Merlin, the abandoned one… son of my dead mother. I want to blame her for leaving me, but I often blame my father. Mostly I blame myself.

My injuries make me the outcast, scar-eyes, the sightless one. I cover over my wounds with humor, jesting, barbs, or wryness. But most of the time I am serious… quiet… thinking. I hate meeting new people because they stare at me. Ask questions. They are the whisperers.

At least the people I know don’t do that anymore, even if those my own age ignore me. To them I am a leper. The poor unfortunate son of the town blacksmith. Or that is how they think of my father, who is really a swordsmith. In this I take refuge. There is little need for swords here in Bosventor, but warriors from far and wide come. ‘The swordsmith of Bosventor can make a fine blade’ they say.

And I help. Nowhere else do I fit. I work the bellows, and this is a hard task. I can run errands for my father, but I’m slow. Getting around is hard. Anywhere outside the village I need help, and even in the village I need to ask directions.

And I get teased. And it hurts. Why couldn’t I be normal? Even blind wouldn’t be so bad without the scars. They call me names. Some have thrown stones. Some mothers in the village show me kindness, but they cannot make all the children be kind. It was worse when I was younger…now I have grown strong from my work, and my peers have matured. But Dyslan and Rondrok have not. Wastrals and wanton wolves. At least Tregeagle keeps a tight rein on the village, and seems to administer justice with some fairness… if not a little eager for gold.

Love is a rabid dog that bites you. Who cares about love? I do. It is a bitter thing that I dream of which jabs me deeply. None will love me…a man who will beg in his old age. My father knows it. He can’t live forever, and then what? I can’t smith on my own. So who will marry me? I hear the girls voices. The young women. And they are like flowers that I can never hold, never smell, never see. I try to imagine them all with thorns that will cut me. Just out of reach. And I cry at night in despair for someone to love. Someone to love me.

And Monda is no help. Witch-woman! I sleep in the smithy because I am not loved by her. She who has stolen my father and made him forget my mother. I don’t know if I can forgive her for that. She who does not hold to the Christ and keeps my father from Him as well. I hear her talking to herself in her strange tongue. Gana has learned it, too, and this separates us. She is loved by Monda, and I am not. She is given special favors and I am not. When father is not around, I get the burned pieces…I cannot see them, anyway, so she thinks I do not know. But I can taste it while my sister munches her oatcake in joy. And that is my life. Burned and stale. I still love Gana, but I fear she does not return my love, taking the opinions of her mother.

My father… so strong… he saves me. Teaches me. Wrestles me. Instructs me how to use a sword a bit. But he is distant. He always holds back from sharing his past. There are secrets there, I know, and I long to know him, but fear I never will.

Anyway, thanks, D. S. for the question! You made me dig out a lot of fun notes that brought back a lot of memories.


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3 thoughts on “How To Write About Mythical and/or Historical Characters

  • I wasn’t expecting THAT in-depth of a reply! Thanks, Robert! :) Very interesting to hear your opinions.

    Now, there was another aspect to what I said that you did not exactly touch on. Especially with mythic characters, the reader might be coming to the book already knowing many other versions, and have a certain expectation, which it is up to the author to fulfill. In that sense, it might actually be more difficult to write mythic characters than historical ones. I have come to expect a certain something about figures like Arthur, Robin Hood, etc., and not all of the books I’ve read about people like that live up to my expectation. And then there’s the issue of putting thoughts and ideas into our characters’ minds, which who knows if they really thought? . . . Anyhow, there are many facets to the issue.

    As a side note, I too have used a diary-like technique to get into a character’s head, but it only worked once. It was helpful that time, though.

    Thanks again!

    D. S. Dahnim

  • I think the issue has less to do with “historical vs. mythical” and more to do with “obscure vs Hollywood-ized”. In other words … how much has the American public (and the rest of the world) been exposed to this particular person … mythical or not, in movies, and books?

    If the person is wholly unknown, then you have a very free hand to paint your own. If they are very known, then you have a choice … to paint within the lines or not.

    As you said, if an author paints outside the lines, then they risk turning off a segment of their readers. But if you paint only within the lines, you are extending the cliche and not creating something new.

    The trick, I think, is to find some sort of balance. Finding the courage to attempt it … ah, that is a different question.

    For me, my Arthur will be closer to what people think of as “King Arthur”. My Merlin, however, is quite different in that he has no magic or special abilities. In fact, it is his weakness that gives him his strength.

    And the jury is still out on my book … how will it be received if and when it is published. That will be interesting to find out!

    Thanks for the discussion!

    -Robert :)

  • Yeah, it’s been fun! A very interesting discussion. If I think of any more questions I’ll return with them :)

    D. S. Dahnim

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