Balancing History and Fictional Characters

3rd May 2023
4 min read
12th June 2023
Fragments of a Woman

Character, for me, is the most important part of any story and even more so when writing historical fiction. I began writing my novel, Fragments of a Woman (which spans the period 1933-1945), with vague ideas of who I wanted my characters to be and definite ideas of who I didn’t want them to be: stereotypes. It can be easy when writing about National Socialist Germany to slip in at surface level, to recreate women who match the women and girls we were taught about during history classes at school: those we find on the propaganda posters: blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and desperately producing babies for the Führer; or the sadistic female camp warder. To avoid this, I chose to focus on voices from the margins: a sex worker, a woman who killed without orders, a lesbian who married a gay man, a woman in the Resistance. How did they experience National Socialism? What situations were unique to them and what might have been universal for women in this specific time and place? 

When I’d decided the roles – both domestic and beyond – the women were going to take, I wondered how different personality traits would have interacted with National Socialist society. Lore is competitive to a fault; she wants to be the best, to outdo any woman she encounters. Gisela is bolshy, confident, unafraid. Ingrid is kind, gentle, good. Liesel is scared of standing out from the crowd. Greta is just and caring; she wants to serve and save people. These traits take the characters in my novel down surprising paths. I say ‘surprising’ because I’m a writer who doesn’t sit and plot her novels or map out her characters in great detail before putting pen to paper, so the actions, the twists and turns, of their narratives sometimes shocked me as much as they might shock my reader.

Still, I let them go down their sometimes-dark paths keeping one eye on the backdrop: what is going on within the wider historical narrative? What key events are occurring? How can I draw these events in so that they are meaningful to these women: what’s going on in their lives as these events happen? There’s the election where the National Socialist Party come to power and there is Liesel and Greta returning from a day out. There’s the 1933 Olympic Games and there’s Gisela basking in the attention of the photographers sent to document life in Berlin at the time. There’s Liesel listening to the declaration of war on the wireless in 1939 and again listening to Joseph Goebbels’ Total War speech in 1943. There’s Lore speaking to her father about von Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt on Hitler in 1944.

But there is always a danger of getting too wedded to history, of clogging up the heart of the story with snippets from your research that you feel you must include because it will make the story feel more plush, more tangible, for your reader. Will it, though? Editing is important here. When re-reading the novel, I ask myself: where am I showing my anxiety as a writer and layering in facts so I can prove I know my stuff, thereby pulling my reader away from the characters? I cut anything that feels forced, anything that distracts from the moment of the story, that dampens the immediacy. After all, if the characters aren’t properly formed then the narrative isn’t going to unfurl as it should and the reader isn’t going to be convinced. And the offcuts? Nothing is wasted because it’s taught me how to inhabit the world I’ve created more fully, trusting my characters to explore the social and political backdrop rather than losing them in the folds of history. 

Emma Venables' short and flash fiction has been widely published in magazines and journals. Her short story, ‘Woman at Gunpoint, 1945’ was a runner-up in the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize 2020. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and has taught at Royal Holloway, University of London and Liverpool Hope University

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