5 Steps to Making Minor Historical Figures Exciting
(This is the first of two parts. The second focuses on fiction – Five Steps to Making Your Minor Characters Exciting)
Everybody has a story to tell, but some stories are more interesting than others. I was thinking about this as I reflected on Women’s History Month. Some women’s stories we hear all the time – Eleanor Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, Marie Curie. They are immensely deserving and accomplished women, but others, who were famous once, have not stood the test of time. For some reason, their stories did not hold the public’s imagination.
That does not mean their stories are not interesting, it’s just that it’s up to the writer to capture it.
Making Minor Historical Figures Interesting
For practical purposes, we’re going to look at civil rights hero Mary Dyer. She is hardly a household name outside of Massachusetts and Rhode Island (in fact, my book, Mary Dyer, Friend of Freedom, is the first children’s book about her), and yet she shaped this country’s political landscape. Fascinating, right? But how do you capture her life story for a modern audience?
- Find his or her hook. What one thing made him or her special? Mary Dyer is best known for launching religious tolerance in this country after being the first woman in America to die for her religious beliefs. While that might feel like her hook, plenty of books have been written on that topic. My research also showed that she was intensely loyal to her friends. That makes her relatable and intriguing, so that became my hook. Most of us won’t die for our beliefs, but we want to be good friends. Find your subject’s hook that sets her apart.
- Be dramatic (but truthful). Don’t just give us facts and figures – tell us a story. You can’t lie in nonfiction, but you can put us in the scene. Add dramatic details to your writing throughout the whole book, not just in various scenes and chapters. Tie everything together so that it has one big story arc. For me, I return to the theme of friendship throughout Mary’s life, from the first page when she alone stood up for a friend being banished from church to her fearlessness in taking her fellow condemned prisoners’ hands on the way to the gallows. These are powerful, touching stories that connect to the “hook.”
- Use quotes. This might not always be possible, but try. Historical figures, even minor ones, often leave behind letters or personal records, and sometimes there are contemporary historical accounts about what he or she said or felt. For Mary, I used her letters to the court, court transcripts, and eyewitness accounts. Quotes make people more interesting and real. We use them in fiction for that reason, and they work in nonfiction, too.
- Connect him or her to current events. Minor historical figures often fall through the cracks because they no longer feel relevant. Make sure they are. Tie them into something that’s going on today, or hypothesize about how they might react to events today. Mary fought for religious tolerance, yet we still see religious discrimination around the globe. Her accomplishments in shaping the law, however, are a natural fit for the chapter on her legacy, but readers will find references to the US Constitution, the First Amendment, multiculturalism, etc., throughout the book. This keeps our modern eye on an old story.
- Tell the good and the bad. There’s a tendency in biographies to create nearly superhuman characters, but they’re only interesting in fantasy novels. It’s easier to explore the negative in adult biographies (see my post on writing Judy Garland’s story for children!), but it should be done regardless. I included the story where Mary and her husband, William, were involved in a land scandal, and I discussed their differences when William became a war hero as Mary became a pacifist. Only dichotomies are interesting, and remembering that your subject isn’t perfect is a great way to reveal them.
It’s been said that truth is stranger than fiction. With compelling nonfiction, you have a chance to capture that. Keep the characters real but interesting, and they’ll make your readers want to know more about them, even if, today, they seem like minor historical figures.
Celebrate Women’s History Month with Mary Dyer, Friend of Freedom, so that she doesn’t remain a minor figure in American history!
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