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Choosing the Best Protagonist for Historical Fiction by Patti Callahan


by Patti Callahan Henry


Career authors seek dramatic events or situations that will resonate with today’s readers. But just as important as a book’s premise is its protagonist. Successful writers in the popular genre of historical fiction carefully choose their main characters, seeking subjects that captivate readers’ imaginations while revealing truths about their time … and ours.




Courageous women in a bygone era


My main characters are female. Stories of courageous women from a bygone era sweep me away from the present to other remarkable times and places. But their biographies can also serve as metaphors, showing how we can be more whole in the world. Historical fiction shows brave women blazing a path for women today.


We read novels to understand life. Our brains are hardwired to search for meaning. This might be why we are engrossed in novels about people bold enough to burst through societal demands, stifling fear, and the thick membrane of expectations that keep us stagnant.

Poet and novelist Joy Davidman wrote, “If we should grow ever brave, what on earth would become of us?”

Biographical historical fiction has the power to answer that question. We come to know historical figures more vividly in novels than if we read a list of facts and figures about them, or if we read a bullet-point list of their failures and accomplishments.



Carving a place in the world

Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun is the riveting tale of Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic east to west. The incredible Beryl overcame the abandonment of her mother, the dissolution of her beloved African farm with her father, and the heartbreak of lost love. Yet her life was not a tragedy. Beryl was not only a heroic aviator, she was the first woman to train horses in the African terrain. Just as powerful and relevant today as it was at the time, Beryl’s odds-defying story is of a woman carving for herself a place in a world that seemed uninhabitable.


Epic bravery is certainly worthy of a great novel.

World War Two’s Joan of Arc, Loussie de Bettingies, took the name of Alice Doubois and is wonderfully portrayed in Kate Quinn’s bestselling novel, The Alice Network. Author Quinn’s intrepid heroine was a French agent spying on Germany for the British, and the head of one of the world’s most successful spy rings, filtering underground information that hampered the German’s progression. She spoke four languages and literally changed the landscape of WWII, even as she gave her life for the resistance.



Trust in an inner voice

In the pages of my own book, Becoming Mrs. Lewis, readers meet American poet and writer Joy Davidman. She ventured on a radical journey altering her life, her writing, and a disintegrating marriage. Crossing an ocean with her young sons, Joy suffered poverty, divorce, hardship and societal ostracism, yet she found her way to a better life and love with famed writer C. S. Lewis, going on to pen profound writings that have stood the test of time. While closely examining her life, her triumphs become ours.



Driving these protagonists’ stories is their trust in an inner voice, the intuitive self.

Beryl ignores voices telling her she cannot fly, that she cannot do as much as a man in wild Africa. Louisse decides that resisting Hitler is worth the risk, that her life is about more than herself. Joy never relents in her search for the truth, pursuing an desire for something greater, even if it means upending her life.


These protagonists overcome fear and cries for safety that might have prevented them from becoming their truest selves. They seem to ask: if we spend all our time trying to please others, can we ever make a difference in the world?


Women like Beryl, Louisse and Joy inspire readers to ignore outside voices keeping them in constricting roles.

To me, they seem to advise, like Mary Oliver states in her poem “The Journey,” to “mend my life.”



Towards something greater

Their lives point the way toward something greater, inspiration for readers to be better and lead more vibrant lives. Beryl became the first woman to fly a plane across the continent, opening the way for others. It is said that without “the Alice Network,” World War Two might have had a different outcome. Joy discovered her life’s work and love even as she died far from her land of birth.



The vibrant lives in these novels show that sorrow is woven into the texture of our existence. We can’t escape desolation by seeking safety. These stories tell us, as good stories do, a profound truth: mustering the courage to change our lives isn’t easy, freedom comes at a cost, but it also redeems us.



We must live fierce, transforming lives.


These women took chances, so I can too—as a person and a writer.






Posted by Our Special Guest | Feb 8, 2019 | Historical Fiction l By Patti Callahan

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Patti Callahan Henry



Patti Callahan Henry is a New York Times bestselling author of fifteen novels, including the historical fiction novel, Becoming Mrs. Lewis – The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis.


Now available for pre-order, her upcoming contemporary Southern fiction novel, The Favorite Daughter, will be released June 4, 2019.


Tags: #writing #authors #readers #literary #BecomingMrsLewis #historicalfiction #patticallahan #cslewis #joydavidman #literary #romance #contemporary #thefavoritedaughter #patticallahanhenry #southern #domestic #careerauthors #women


© 2020 by Patti Callahan Henry

patti@patticallahanhenry.com

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