8 May 2012

Do historical characters in novels have to be likeable people?

the reader’s email that asks :
did you intend on making everyone so disagreeable?

   Tuesday Talk   

I had this e-mail last week from a reader. At first I wasn’t quite sure what to think – understandably, authors prefer to get gushing praise about their work, but this enquiry was, on first reading, quite the opposite.

Did I intend to make everyone in Forever Queen (UK title is A Hollow Crown) so disagreeable? The reader didn’t like the main character, Emma, very much, and finished with: “It makes for a gloomy, disheartening read.”

Phew, that’s tough for an author to read – and respond politely to!

However, I read the e-mail again…. and rather than me waffling on here, I’ve posted the correspondence we subsequently had (with Brandi’s permission of course.)

Read through – and then I would be very interested in your comments.

~ ~ ~
I just finished reading The Forever Queen and I don’t quite know what to say about it.  I think it took much talent to keep the story straight and the characters all coordinated, but did you intend on making everyone so disagreeable? The sub-title of the book claims “sometimes, a desperate kingdom is in need of one great woman” and I find myself wondering who that was supposed to allude to.  It certainly couldn’t have been Emma because from the description given of her actions in the book, she wasn’t much different or better than Cnut’s first wife.  It was impossible for me to establish any kind of empathy with her. I don’t understand a woman who doesn’t love her own children and her greatness seemed to consist solely of underhanded manipulation of all at her disposal.  I could not find one single character in the entire cast that I could cheer for.  Really, I only kept reading to the end because I hoped at least one character would emerge as sympathetic.  I’ve never disliked a book enough to write to its author, but this has cast a serious pall over my mood.  I am curious to know if it was your aim to present everyone in their worst light.  Every favorable description given about a character is contradicted by an equally negative one a few passages or pages later.  It makes for a gloomy, disheartening read.     

~ ~ ~
Hello Brandi,
I’m sorry you did not like Forever Queen (the sub heading was not mine, it was the publisher’s choice)
The problem is, Brandi, this is English history and historical fiction is supposed to follow the facts as much as possible, and unfortunately, this period is – disagreeable!
One of the  reasons I wrote the book was to explore how Emma managed to cling on to her crown – this was the eleventh century, don’t forget, women did not have rights, not even queens. The only way she could keep her power (and power was the be-all and end-all) was to be manipulative, as everyone else was also manipulative.
What intrigued me as well, was why did Edward loathe his mother? (this is fact, he hated Emma) Was it because she abandoned her sons into exile, or because she preferred her son by Cnut?
Cnut himself was not a pleasant man – although he became a respected king. And as for Æthelred...... they were all not very pleasant people, most people in power in history weren’t – Henry Tudor for instance.
Surely you liked Edmund Ironside? He would have been a good king (as would Æthelstan, I think) sadly they both died before they had chance to prove themselves.
I’m sorry, but I can’t change the reality of history!
Perhaps you would prefer one of my other books? I think Harold in I am the Chosen King (titled Harold the King in the UK) is quite a nice person. Duke William wasn’t though .... (another Norman, Emma’s great nephew; perhaps being disagreeable ran in their family :-)

Thank you for writing, again, I’m sorry I let you down.

~ ~ ~
Dear Helen
Perhaps to say I disliked it is too strong a phrase. I was unsettled by it. When I was discussing it with some friends, I mentioned that I think the reason it bothered me so much was because it wasn’t blunted by fiction.  I had just finished reading a book set in a similar time period, Lawhead’s Hood.  His characters were of course mostly fictional, but the scene was set with historical facts. The difference is that your book was mostly historical fact fleshed out with fiction and his was fiction fleshed out with fact.
I think it confused me how I was supposed to feel about the characters. When reading Godwin’s distrust for Harthacnut, I expected him to be entirely detestable, but then Emma compares him frequently to the husband she loved and I can’t outright hate him or love him.  That’s how I felt for the majority of the characters.  I couldn’t dislike or identify with them. You’re right though, I did like Edmund and I liked Godwin as well.  My heart went out to poor Edward and Albert.  I just had such a hard time identifying with Emma as a heroine when I didn’t like her as a woman.  It has helped me clarify in my mind some English history though.  My mom’s English and from visiting there as a child, I thought I had a pretty decent grip on the history.  How wrong I was! 
I suppose I’m too used to reading fables and myths where the complexities of human nature can be neatly set aside in favor of archetypical heroes and villains. 
In any case, I just wanted to say that my discomfiture was not your failing.  I wished I had half your writing talent and dedication to produce such a complex novel.   
I am curious and hope you don’t mind me asking, what your feelings on Emma are.  Did your conception of her change at all during or after writing her story?  In your fictionalized account, do you believe that it was England’s best interest or her own that she fought so savagely for or would this fictionalized Emma not even have differentiated between the two? 
Thank you for the response. 

~ ~ ~
Hi Brandi,
Stephen Lawhead mostly writes fiction and fantasy – very little of his is “fact” , so no if you are a fan of his you possibly wouldn’t get on with “straight” historical fiction.
Historical fiction is fiction of course, much of it is made up because we don’t know the facts, but what facts we do know are used with integrity. I suppose what I’m trying to say is – maybe readers are not meant to like some of the people from the past? I detest Duke William of Normandy, for instance, I can’t stand him, but I’m not writing him, I’m writing the history of what happened when he was alive.

The same with Emma – do you have to like a person to read about what happened in the past? (in which case there would be very few Tudor novels... do people actually like Henry Tudor? Or do they read the books to try and understand what happened and why?) 
Edward was badly treated – but he treated people as badly when he was king (he was useless at the job!) which was another reason why I wanted to write Forever Queen, to explore why he was so useless!
Godwin I like very much – Harold his son I adore – now there IS a hero! He gave his life defending his kingdom and his people.

Emma?  I admire her. I think she was courageous and resilient to survive as she did. But do I like her? Hmm,  probably not.
Let’s put her in the position of a modern politician: instead of Hilary Clinton, we have Emma Queen. She is battling against a male dominated world, if she appears soft and fluffy no one will respect her. She has to come across as forceful, domineering and above all capable. No I don’t like Hilary Clinton – but I do admire her.
Do you see?
Would you mind if I use your e-mail as a topic on one of my blogs? Something along the lines of “do you need a  likeable heroine in historical fiction?”
And at the end of the day Brandi, you might not have felt comfortable or liked Forever Queen – but it has set you thinking, and you will remember the character and the history! (and I hope, be tempted to read more of my books? J
As you like Stephen Lawhead, you might prefer my pirate-based Sea Witch series. These are historical adventure with a touch of fantasy, so fiction based around a few facts.

~ ~ ~
Dear Helen
Yes, I will say that after reading your book, I find myself looking up the characters online to learn more about them and what part they played in the unfolding of history. 
No, I don’t mind if you write a blog post about our exchange.  I think it’s a good subject for discussion actually, and will be interested in what others have to say.
Funny thing is even though I was so put off by Emma, I still find myself itching to read the next in the series to see what became of her and how Edward’s reign unfolded.  Your story has made me feel as if I know them, if not exactly like them.
Thank you for whetting the appetite of my curiosity on this particular era of history.  I feel in some ways as if a new door has been opened for me. 

~ ~ ~

Reading through this I realise I didn’t answer all of Brandi’s question: 
in a nutshell, Emma was fighting for her own survival, not England’s. She wanted the power the position of Queen gave her, I doubt she gave two hoots for the people she was Queen over.
Did any of the Kings (and Queens) of that time put the people first I wonder?
Empress Matilda comes to mind here – if she cared about England and the people, would she have been so determined to fight for her crown against Stephen? On the other hand, you could argue that she was determined because she was convinced she would be the better ruler for her people.

As a final word - Brandi's comments prove that you can write an honest review/e-mail saying you didn't enjoy a book without being rude or offensive. 

Have your say below - 
Do you need a likeable hero/heroine in historical fiction?


  1. What an interesting post! (Incidentally, it's genuinely quite a compliment to your writing that the book made such a strong impression on Brandi.)

    History has more villains than heroes, so naturally HF would have relatively few "likeable" characters. When you're talking about a main character, though, while it would be dull to have them as saints, I think their actions should be, if not sympathetic, at least comprehendible. When/if they do rotten things, the reader should understand why they did them. It may not make "feel-good" fiction, but in the hands of a good writer, it certainly makes for compelling, and possibly even instructive reading.

    Emma is a good example of this. I doubt there's any realistic way to make her adorable, but she could certainly be seen as understandable. And with understanding, I suppose, comes a certain sympathy.

  2. Thank you for your thoughts. I was also interested in the exchange of e-mails because it made me think: _do_ I like Emma? An honest is no, but I do very much admire her.

  3. A very interesting exchange, Helen; thanks for sharing it.

    I admit, I do like having likeable characters in the books I read, but then I think 'likeable' is a bit of a subjective term - what works for one reader might not work for another. Take a character who's incredibly honest, sweet, good-natured; some readers will love her, but others might despise her as a goody two-shoes.

    When I read, if there aren't any sympathetic characters in sight, then things can get a bit depressing - and my mood can be affected by my reading, as in Brandi's case. That's why I generally avoid crime fiction as a whole; I just find the whole genre too pitiless and devoid of enjoyment.

    A good example of a hero who isn't particularly likeable is Uhtred, the lead in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories. He's incredibly ruthless and often filled with bile, but you root for him because everything else - by comparison - is even worse!

    Of course, it's always handy to have some sympathetic characters in your supporting cast - then you can traumatise your readers when you have the villain bump them off a few chapters later!

  4. Graham - yes I entirely agree - especially about bumping off characters! LOL

  5. I also found this very interesting. I read 'A Hollow Crown' for the first time last year. It immediately became my favourite of your novels Helen. I also did not particularly like Emma, but I admire her immensely. I found her complex and nuanced and I very much wanted her to succeed. I read a little faster and more enthusiastically when she was the focus. In conclusion, I don't think you have to like a character, you just have to understand them.

  6. Thank you Paula - I've noticed that either readers dislike Emma or admire her, few do actually 'like' her.

  7. That's why I think it is such a wonderful book Helen. It is compelling and engaging, and you want Emma to come out on top, even if you don't always like how she gets there. I admired her practicality and her survival instincts.

  8. It's interesting how different people have different views of the same book though isn't it?

  9. I am just now reading this book. I find it so fascinating.. all that this women faced and over came. I see a girl that was thrown into a life she really had no idea of what it truly was going to be and through all the bumps and bruises became an incredible woman.

    1. I admire Emma very much - OK so a lot of her life in my novel is my interpretation of a few facts - but those facts are incredible! I think had the Saxon dynsaty not been scrubbed out by the Norman Conquest Emma would be as famous as that later Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Glad you are enjoying the read - thank you


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