Creating characters from history is not the same as creating characters from the present day. It’s difficult not to give them modern personalities, and if all hist-fic characters were modern, what would be the point of reading historical fiction? The context of their lives not only make them who they are; it makes them interesting.
Authors sometimes use questionnaires to help them develop their characters. You can find tons of them online if you run a search for Character Sketch Questionnaire. Click here for an example.
It occurred to me that since historical characters are different, they should get a different worksheet. I compiled a questionnaire specific to characters from other time periods. (See below.)
I went ahead and did one for Sacred Fire, which you can see as an example (if you feel so inclined) by clicking on “Read More” at the bottom of the page. If you complete this questionnaire for your own characters, let me know; I’d love to read it.
Questionnaire for Historical Characters
(Keep in mind that people change, so the answers to these questions might be different at various points in your book.)
- What’s one thing I would never do because I believe it’s wrong? What would it take to make me do it?
- What’s one thing about my culture that bothers me?
- What’s my favorite aspect of my culture?
- Am I patriotic?
- What do I want for my future?
- What do I want for the future of my country? Do I hope/expect things to change?
- How much of my history do I know?
- Am I literate? What kind of education do I have?
- What do others expect out of me? Will I meet those expectations?
- What kind of people/characteristics do I admire?
- List at least one thing I would do or I believe that would be controversial today.
- What are the trends in my culture (clothes, celebrities, books, movies, games, activities)? How do I feel about these trends?
- How do I feel about race and class?
- How do I feel about love? Romance? Sex?
- What’s my relationship with my family? Is this relationship typical to my time period, or unique?
- What is my biggest fear?
- What do I do for fun, or to relax after a long day?
- What makes me different from all the other characters in this book?
- What makes me the same as all the other characters in this book, but different from people you know in your current day?
- What is the biggest difference between you (the author) and me?
Questionnaire for Sacred Fire
What’s one thing I would never do because I believe it’s wrong? What would it take to make me do it?
As a Vestal Virgin, I would never lose my virginity. Doing so would anger the gods and harm Rome. I wouldn’t do it even to save my own life.
What’s one thing about my culture that bothers me?
What’s one thing about my culture that bothers me?
I wish it wasn't so crowded in the city. Even at night, the noise is outrageous.
What’s my favorite aspect of my culture?
I love my religion. I’m also proud of Rome for the resilience we showed during the Second Punic War. No other country could have suffered the same defeats without being destroyed.
Am I patriotic?
Absolutely. Rome is a strong, powerful, beautiful country.
What do I want for my future?
I want to have the religious faith I need to feel good about myself. A real priestess would be confident, not doubtful like me.
What do I want for the future of my country?
I want us to defeat Hannibal and win the Punic War. I hate Carthage and I hope it burns to the ground.
How much of my history do I know?
I’m not a historian or anything, but my surrogate mother – another Vestal Virgin – used to tell me stories before bed about Roman courage and great Vestal Virgins from the past.
Am I literate? What kind of education do I have?
(Most people assume the Vestal Virgins were literate because they kept wills in storage at their home. I believe they kept the wills, but did not write them. The vestals were very busy women and would not have had time. If the wills were delivered to them already written, or if they hired clerks to write the wills in their home, there would be no need to teach them how to read.)
What do others expect out of me? Will I meet those expectations?
They expect me to perform my duties with exactness. Any mistake could anger the gods. I will disappoint everyone when I let Vesta’s sacred fire go out, but I will be honored for performing a miracle later in my life.
What kind of people/characteristics do I admire?
I am in awe of people who have absolute assurance in themselves and the gods. I’ve never felt good enough to be a Vestal Virgin, and when the goddess Vesta lets me surrogate-mother die, I no longer believe cares about us.
List at least one thing I would do or I believe that would be controversial today.
I’m pagan, for one thing. Most people in your time do not take my religion seriously and they assume I would rather have an affair than keep my integrity. I also enjoy the gladiator games. Your culture thinks they’re a lot worse than they really are.
What are the trends in my culture (clothes, celebrities, books, movies, games, activities)? How do I feel about these trends?
I’m not current with the trends because I have to wear the same white uniform and I’m not allowed to improve my appearance. I love chariot races, gladiator games, music, and plays.
How do I feel about race?
I believe Rome should rule the world, but I do not look down on others for their traditions and religions.
How do I feel about love? Romance? Sex?
These ideas frighten me because having a relationship with a man could lead to my execution and the destruction of Rome. When I’m adult I have the choice between remaining a priestess for the rest of my life or leaving to get married, and then these ideas begin to appeal to me.
What’s my relationship with my family? Is this relationship typical to my time period, or unique?
My parents love me and visit me when they can, but various events in my life have created a division between us. (I believe Vestal Virgins maintained relationships with their families, so Tuccia’s experience is normal.)
What is my biggest fear?
Making a mistake that would harm Rome.
What do I do for fun, or to relax after a long day?
I don’t have much spare time because when I’m not performing rituals or watching the fire, I have social engagements like games and dinner parties. When I was a kid, I loved talking with my surrogate mother and hearing her stories. After she died, I spent most of my spare time with her replacement, who became my best friend.
What makes me different from all the other characters in this book?
I take myself more seriously than others do.
What makes me the same as all the other characters in this book, but different from people you know in your current day?
My love for Rome and for the gods.
What is the biggest difference between you (the author) and me?
I don’t have the same self-confidence you have. You might believe you’ll be an author someday, but I don’t believe I’ll ever be a good Vestal Virgin.