It is a delight to have the bestselling author, Kate Braithwaite, to the blog today to discuss creating believable characters in her most recent novel, The Scandalous Life of Nancy Randolph. Thank you for your time today, Kate.
Thanks Val, for the opportunity to visit with you and talk about the writing craft, particularly when it comes to creating believable characters.
A couple of years ago, I came across a true story about a couple of sisters. They were Virginian, born in the 1770s, part of a wealthy plantation family. The older sister, Judy, had married young and set up home with her handsome husband. The younger, seventeen-year-old Nancy, remained with their widowed father, but when he married a woman barely older than his daughters, Nancy went to live with Judy instead. Within a year, a huge scandal broke. Nancy, it was said, had slept with her sister’s husband, and borne a child. The child was missing – perhaps stillborn, perhaps abandoned. Enslaved workers reported finding blood on a pile of shingles and Judy’s husband was accused of killing his own child. There was a trial, the records of which are scanty, and the husband was acquitted. Somehow the sisters continued living together for another ten years, and the scandal haunted Nancy for decades.
Right away I had so many questions about this story. What had really happened, for one? And - who were these sisters? What kind of women? How could they go on living together for so long?
Nancy and Judy’s story is basis for my fourth novel, The Scandalous Life of Nancy Randolph, which will be published by Lume/Joffe books in May 2024. In it, I’ve tried to answer my own questions, solving the mystery about Nancy’s child, and bringing to life these two very different women, as well as Nancy’s enslaved maid, Phebe.
At the outset, character was important. Writing about historical figures puts a particular demand on the writer. There are factual things these women did, and the characters I’ve given them need to make those actions believable for the book to work. Did Nancy sleep with Judy’s husband? If she did, then why? It’s a pretty big betrayal and might make her character unredeemable. If Nancy betrayed her sister, did Judy know about it? And how did Judy go on living with Nancy on a remote plantation, called – and no, I’m not making this up – Bizarre, for ten more years? Along the way, I found myself asking over and over, what did Phebe know about it? On the night that Nancy may or may not have given birth, the historical record is clear that Nancy’s maid was with her. Who was Phebe? What did she think of the family at Bizarre? She was someone who could have revealed the truth, but as a Black person, her evidence was never sought, and would not have been admitted in court.
As a reader, it’s important to me that a character acts with consistency. They need to be clearly established from the get-go, and they need to take me on a journey. Right in the opening pages of The Scandalous Life of Nancy Randolph, I set up the contrasting personalities of these two sisters.
“Of the children still at home, Judy was the sensible one. Where her sister sought approval and tried to do everything right, Nancy questioned and tested. Warned not to touch a hot kettle one day, Judy clasped her hands behind her back and nodded while Nancy sucked on the burn on her forefinger for a week. Everyone agreed on it. Judy was more obedient. Better. Less prone to hiding behind the smokehouse reading novels.”
Nancy then, is a little impetuous, more imaginative, and carefree than her responsible sister, Judy. Already the possibility that Nancy could become entangled with Judy’s handsome husband seems more believable.
Physical descriptions can also help. John Randolph of Roanoke becomes a villain in Nancy’s story and although he’s only young when the story opens and the scandal seems far away, I let the reader know she’s not his biggest fan from her point of view: “Long-limbed and awkward-looking, Jack Randolph was a year older than her — a pale, thin youth with a small, girlish mouth and a dimple on his chin.”
Another way I like to build character is by having characters comment on each other. Nancy and Judy’s step-mother, Gabriella Harvie, plays only a small role, but she’s pivotal in Nancy and Judy ending up living together at Bizarre. Judy’s husband Dick is not impressed by her and shows it, saying of her, “She’ll turn milk sour in a few years, I’ve seen that type of girl all too often.” Of course, this piece of dialogue is doing double duty. It tells the reader something about Dick too: he’s flippant, and inclined to gossip. But is he the kind of man who will sleep with his wife’s sister?
I wish I had a cover of The Scandalous Life of Nancy Randolph to share, but my publisher is not there quite yet. Instead, I have a book recommendation! I’ve recently read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders, who wrote the Booker Prize winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, and I loved it. Saunders teaches writing at Syracuse University and offers up one of his favorite courses in book form. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain he takes four Russian short stories (don’t let that put you off now!) and discusses what makes them work (or doesn’t) and what makes us want to keep reading them (or not). It’s conversational and thoughtful, a real treat for anyone who loves reading fiction, or writing fiction, or both. I hope you’ll take a look.
Kate Braithwaite grew up in Edinburgh and has lived in various parts of England, Canada and now Pennsylvania where she is settled right now, so she has recently put my books in alphabetical order – no small undertaking!
She is the author of three fact-based historical novels – so far! The first two are set in 17th century Paris and London respectively: Charlatan (Fireship, 2016) and The Road to Newgate (Crooked Cat, 2018). The Girl Puzzle, a novel of Nellie Bly, (Crooked Cat in 2019) takes place in late 19th and early 20th century New York City. It’s about to be made into an audio book.
Twitter - @KMBraithwaite
Email - firstname.lastname@example.org