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Becoming Your Character

Simon Turney

We all read books and watch movies – really good books and movies, I might add – where we feel like we have lived through a great event with the characters in it. But often, there is a slight withdrawal from reality that we take for granted. I want to talk to you about closing that reality gap with your character.

Let me give you an example or two. How many times have you watched a huge-budget movie purporting to be an immersive real experience, and walked out at the end, wondering why no director ever has one of his characters suddenly need to go to the toilet, especially given some of the terrifying things they might face? How many times have you read a book without realising that at no point in the book did you see the character actually eat anything? See what I mean? We are experiencing the sanitised version of a character’s life, because authors and directors have a tendency to strip out the humdrum. We readers only want the excitement, right? We don’t want to see the characters queuing for the conveniences on Euston station, do we?

Yes we do. Simply that. To truly identify with a character, we want to live their life as fully as possible. I want to laugh when Cornelius the legionary is sitting on the cold toilet seat in his fort and realises no one has left a cleaning sponge! I want to see Gavin the space fighter pilot brushing aside the clamour at his victorious return because he hasn’t eaten since he left outpost X48 and his stomach is constantly rumbling. It is these small factors that give characters true life. The unexpected pimple on the nose the morning of an important meeting. Tripping and falling so that the centurion turns up at the command meeting with muddy, grass-stained knees, prompting raucous and rude suggestions from his peers. You see what I mean?

One of the best ways to do this as an author is to try and live your character’s life. It’s not always possible, of course, especially if your character is a wizard or a Starfighter pilot. But as far as you can, think about the everyday tasks you go through and see how they might apply to your tale. If you are writing a historical work (as I do), books on what furniture was around, the wildlife, foods eaten for meals, fruit that grows in the region, clothing and so on are every bit as important to creating your immersive world as texts on what emperor did what and how a manipular legion was organised.

To some extent, we historical writers are lucky in that we can go one better. The world of re-enactment worldwide offers us the chance to truly live our character’s life. In my time with the 20th legion at Chester I have marched wearing 1st century kit, eaten Roman foods, practised sword drills and throwing pila. I have even fired a scorpion bolt thrower. And what have I learned from this? Well much that has since coloured my writing, but only a small amount of it has changed the grand-scheme, the military jargon, description of equipment or details of a march. More has come from my experiences in terms of the things you never think about until you try it.

I’ll give you a few nice examples of what I’ve learned from personal experience that I’d never even considered beforehand.

How one actually grips a shield and what does the grip feel like. How painful hob-nails are when they scrape your leg or tread on your toes. How damned hard it is to scratch an itch inside Roman segmented armour. What flavours you can pick out in Roman porridge. How interesting it is to eat when the fork hasn’t been invented yet. How much a pottery cup affects the flavour of wine. How much maintenance armour and leatherwork take when they’ve been introduced to sea air and all the salt it contains. How even armour that you think fits well can bruise and chafe when throwing a javelin, because it needs adjusting. How slippery caligae are on wet stones.

Insurgency by S.J.A Turney

There you go. Just a few examples. And then having begun to understand the wealth of stuff we ignore or take for granted when writing, it leads you to think and to question further. I’ve never yet had the opportunity to use Roman latrines in a real environment, but now that I’m starting to get into my character’s mind-set, I might think about how cold the seat is going to be, especially in Northumberland in winter, for a man with no trousers. I might have to think about the smell and just how much you would want your peers to make sure the toilet sponges were thoroughly cleaned. You might start to think about the trouble of sand getting into sandals. The world is full of mundane things and small irritations that are so easily ignored and yet which form the flavour and colour of the world. The swordfights and car chases are just the bones of the thing. Flesh it out with realism.


I live with my family and two peculiar dogs in rural North Yorkshire, where my wife and I both grew up, surrounded by friends and family. Since leaving University, I have tried a great number of careers, including car sales, insurance, software engineering, computer network management, civil service and even painting and decorating sales. I excelled at not being able to settle on anything. Having written a number of unpublished short stories in my early days, I decided back in 2003 to try and write a full length novel. That was the start of Marius' Mules. Being a lover of Roman history, I decided to combine my love of writing and my love of classical history. Marius' Mules was followed two years later by Interregnum, my attempt to create a new fantasy story still with a heavy flavour of Rome. Since then the success and popularity of both has spawned sequels to each work and more, with the fantasy trilogy complete, seven volumes so far in the Marius' Mules series, a complete Ottoman Cycle quadrilogy out and the flagship of a new Roman series – Praetorian – recently released. Find out more on my website and find me on Twitter and Facebook.


Further writing tips on writersandartists.co.uk from Simon Turney:

Language and Idiom in Historical Fiction

Unknown History: Bridging the Gaps with Imagination