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5 Tips on Making the British Royals Into Appealing Fictional Characters

Novelist Wendy Holden explains how you can best tackle characterizing the British Royal Family.

The whole world is fascinated with Britain’s Royal Family. They’re a non-stop soap opera in which practically every twist and turn have featured over the years. This is why they make great drama like The Crown. That they seem rather chilly and ruthless also works brilliantly on screen, but presents a definite challenge to the novelist. For fiction to work, you need to create sympathy and so for The Royal Governess, my novel about the Queen’s little-known childhood, I had to warm up The Windsors. For anyone thinking about doing the same, here are my tips.

(Writing Exercise: How to Start Loving Your Characters)

1. Show them as children.

The Royal Governess is about the relationship between Princess Elizabeth and Marion Crawford, the young Scottish teacher who became her governess when she was six. The bond between the two lasted for 17 years and ‘Crawfie’ and ‘Lilibet’ (as they knew each other) were as close as mother and daughter. As I show in the novel, Crawfie didn’t want to work for the royals at all and thought Lilibet would be horribly spoilt. Showing the infant princess as the eager, loving, and sometimes vulnerable and anxious child she was allowed me to throw a new and revealing light on the sometimes steely-seeming Queen Elizabeth II.

2. Show their eccentricities. 

When Crawfie joins the Royal Family, she has to run the gauntlet of Lilibet’s relatives. Including her grandmother Queen Mary, the formidable consort of King George V who was on the throne at the time. Queen Mary was incredibly pompous, and in one scene poor Crawfie has to sit while Queen Mary tells her what lessons to teach her granddaughter. These include the genealogy of all the European Royal Houses and the countries over which King George is King-Emperor. Maths is out because ‘Lilibet will never need to manage a household budget!’ Crawfie, who has ideas of her own and very modern ones, is horrified.

The Royal Governess

The Royal Governess: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth II's Childhood by Wendy Holden

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3. Show them making a character journey. 

The 17 years that Crawfie was with Lilibet also coincided with some of the most seismic in modern British history. The huge drama of the 1936 Abdication was followed by the unexpected coronation of Lilibet’s parents, King George and Queen Elizabeth in 1937. Then, in 1939, came World War Two. One of my favourite characters to write was Queen Elizabeth (later The Queen Mother) who first appears in The Royal Governess as a rather trivial and self-indulgent aristocrat. But once she is crowned, she starts to grow into the part of Queen, and when war begins, she is magnificent, providing with her husband a rallying point for a beleaguered nation facing the Nazis alone.

4. Show them with a sense of humour.

The Royal Family can be very funny and their love of nicknames is a feature in The Royal Governess. Edward Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII), liked to tease his brother the Duke of York (later George VI) because he visited factories so much. Edward called him ‘The Foreman’. Both of them mocked their younger and rather dim brother Prince Henry, who was in the Army, by calling him ‘The Unknown Soldier’.

5 Tips on Making the British Royals Into Appealing Fictional Characters

5. Show them in love. 

After revealing a little-known story about The Windsors in The Royal Governess, I went to the other extreme. My latest novel, The Duchess, is about Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII. It was the love affair of the century, but there is much more to their story than most people know. As I have shown, they were drawn to each other for very different and more moving reasons from the ones usually assumed. But their commitment to each other was total.

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