Characters drive the story; it’s a common statement among fiction writers. However, no truer words are spoken when we talk about our ancestors and our family history stories. Ancestors are the very basis of our story, they are the name we put into the search engine at Ancestry, we create files with their names on them, collect their photos, and record every fine detail of their life. Yet, how well do you really know them? Further still, how do we bring them to life on the page? How do we make them as authentic as they were in real life?
In order to write organically and authentically about your ancestor you must thoroughly and completely understand them, before you begin. When you begin to write your stories, you’ll use three elements in your writing to make your ancestor breathe on the page; description, dialogue and action. How do you describe a person you barely knew, or perhaps never met, how do you put words in their mouth, how do you know what drove their actions?
Through immense research of your ancestor, you will be able to make them live again in your story. You may already have all the research in front of you, perhaps you’ve just never taken the time to truly compile that information into a character profile and timeline. Two essential tools I use in starting my stories. You may have looked at each piece of information as its own fact, but combined in a tool like a character profile or timeline, they can reveal a great deal about a person.
First, you need to understand their complete history, it may not all make it into your story, but it is this history that you’ll rely on to characterize your ancestors and their actions on the page. You need to have a complete understanding of the political, environmental, social and economic influences during their lives. These influences, their history, even their parents and grand-parents history may have some affect on them and their actions. These influences affected everything they did, say and their relationships with others. It may influence how they responded to conflict and how and why they made their decisions in life.
Through writing biographies, completing character profiles, examining the political, environmental, social and economic influences of
their life, investigating pictures, conducting interviews either with the ancestor or someone who knew them, we can fine tune our ancestor’s character. When all these elements blend together, they help us to crawl into the hearts and minds of our ancestor so we can replicate them on the page.
What motivates your ancestor is what drives their actions; their actions reflect their character and motivations. Understand one and you understand the other.
The Protagonist and the Antagonist
A protagonist is the main ancestor in your story and all the action revolves around them. They are the hero of the story, the one we are rooting for from beginning to end. We follow their life, learn about their problems, and understand their wants and desires.
A protagonist needs a weakness. This weakness can be anything, from something that physically makes the protagonist weak to an event from his/her past that frightens him/her, to a character flaw, like being shy, greedy, or outspoken etc. Often, we shy away from demonstrating our ancestor’s failings for fear of what others may think. We lean towards the angelic simply because they passed away and they can’t defend themselves. However, they were real people and last I checked we all come with our share of flaws some more obvious than others. Sometime,s we are worried what others will say by suggesting our ancestor was less than perfect. Let’s remind ourselves that the best characters in a book are the ones you can relate too, so the better job you do at presenting your ancestors with all their flaws, the greater chance you have of your reader investing in your story. Make sure you have a good balance, and certainly we must write with empathy.
An antagonist is a person who opposes, competes with, and fights against the main ancestor in your family history. They are the bad seed, the dark-side of the family. They cause problems for your ancestor. They don’t have to be a family member, maybe they are a family outsider, a neighbour, a banker, a political opponent or an employer. An antagonist drives the conflict on the main ancestor out of pure spite or for a deeper, darker reason.
Every story has a protagonist but not every story has an antagonist. I would tread very carefully when identifying a family member as an antagonist in a family history story, it can bring many repercussions. It is not to be taken lightly.
Invest a little time getting to know your protagonist ancestor so that you may write an authentic characterization that your readers will root for and embrace.