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5 Tips for Writing About Real-Life Heroes in Historical Fiction

What makes an ordinary person do a heroic thing, and how do we best convey them in fiction? Here, USA TODAY bestselling author Mario Escobar shares 5 tips for writing about real-life heroes in historical fiction.

From Homer's Iliad to Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, through Tolstoy's Bhagavad-gītā or War and Peace, war has always been present in literature. The human experience that all conflict derives from, the unavoidable destiny of its protagonists, the unimaginable pain and suffering of death, separation, and loss—these have been the raw material of unforgettable stories. The transformation of characters like Scarlett O'Hara, a woman who loses everything in the American Civil War, or Władysław Szpilman's fight in the Warsaw Ghetto—shows us what it is to be human in the most vulnerable sense, when the layers of kindness, correctness, and social conventions give way to the wild animal that each one of us can become when fighting to survive.

(Balancing History and Story in Historical Fiction)

War is never a heroic act. Especially not as it is always stained with the horrific atrocities that human beings can be capable of. I grew up watching the war movies of the 1940s and 1950s, where men became heroes by ridding their country of Nazi hordes, or destroying the Empire of the Rising Sun. It makes you wonder—are real flesh and blood heroes like that?

For years I have explored the lives of ordinary people who did extraordinary things. People capable of sacrificing their careers, families, reputations, and their lives if it meant they were able to save even one other person. People like Helen Hannemann, an Aryan mother who voluntarily accompanied her half-gypsy children to Auschwitz; the Colignom brothers who, together with a group of friends, became opponents in the heart of the Third Reich; Henriëtte Pimentel and Johan van Hults who saved hundreds of Dutch children; Janusz Korzak who decided to go with the orphans from his foster home to the Warsaw Ghetto and sacrifice himself for them. What do they all have in common? All of them were ordinary people, almost anonymous, who put their principles, values, and morals ahead of their own safety.

This begs the question—how does one write fictional stories about such remarkable people?

5 Tips for Writing About Real-Life Heroes in Historical Fiction

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The great temptation would be to fill the story with all the relevant events of these characters, but that would be a big mistake. It happened to me with The Children of the Stars, the story of André Trocmé, a Protestant pastor who, together with his community, helped hide more than 2,000 Jewish children in Nazi-occupied France. He was such a strong figure, and I did not know how to contain him in my novel. What I learned from writing his story was that it’s not the heroes and their actions that need to be in the foreground, but rather the lives that they were responsible for saving.

The second thing that I have found when writing about real-life heroic characters is understanding and reminding the audience of their human natures. Space and time from the actual events can help lend an “untouchable” quality to these figures—essentially turning them into saints or deities of a sort. But by idealizing these people, we make it impossible to emulate them. Behind every hero is a human, and when we ignore that fact for the sake of the story, we also strip them of their abilities to make mistakes, feel fear, have doubts, experience defeats, and explore inconsistencies.

The third thing I always ask myself is what the hero I'm narrating about has taught me. For us to transmit the value of this person’s example most effectively, I have to see it reflected in my life beforehand. Did the story of Helen, Janusz, or Johan make me a better person? What have I learned from the behavior of human beings in extreme situations?

5 Tips for Writing About Real-Life Heroes in Historical Fiction

The fourth thing that I always try to implement is the creation or inclusion of an equally compelling antagonist. Heroes must always face their antiheroes.

The fifth thing to consider is to create the right setting. The physical and historical context of the novel is important for character development, and in many cases, the setting highlights the character of the heroes without the need to reflect it in the prose.

In my opinion, what ultimately makes a hero stand out is his actions, not his words.

Beyond the characters and settings, creating fictional conversations or situations that these characters might have experienced is an incredibly complex process. I imagine it being similar to the work of archaeologists who have to reconstruct a Greek theater with a few loose pieces, or a coroner who can put together clues to discover a cause of death.

Can we stop the scale of hate that seems to invade the entire world? Maybe not, but literature can free us from the chains of fanaticism and revenge and elevate us to a state of grace in which true heroism can be found.

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This course will take you out of your blogging comfort zone and encourage you to experiment and think bigger. It goes beyond the basics to explore such topics as how to fine-tune your blog's theme, how to improve your blog's visibility in searches and across the social web, how to turn your blog followers into a community, and how to start monetizing your blog.

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