When you are developing characters for fiction, and particularly historical fiction, what kinds of resources do you find most helpful in establishing a distinctive voice?

Two suggestions I've heard have been:

  • looking for personal correspondence and diaries of real people who are substantially similar to your character (date, age, gender, place of origin, social status)
  • reading books, particularly fiction, published in the time period you wish to write about

What types of resources and primary sources are helpful for getting into historical character, and why?

I am particularly looking for sources to facilitate making characters' voices (in their direct speech, as well as their writing and thoughts) both distinctive and authentic to their historical context.

  • "What types of resources work for you, and how do utilize them?" - you should rephrase this part of your question, what works for one person is entirely opinion based and may get the question closed. The question in your title is good, I would use similar wording in the body.
    – linksassin
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 4:44

2 Answers 2


All material written in the historical period and in the region you are writing about is probably the best source of the "voices" of that era. That is, of course, if you know the language (well enough), otherwise you are at the translators' mercy, so choose your sources carefully (e.g., recognized academic translations, fiction translated by experienced translators who have reputation of specializing in historical translations etc.)

However, I would suggest that you think twice before emulating the language of the era in your book(s). You are writing for modern readers, and you want them relate to your story while they get immersed in the historical context, right? Think about this: your re characters are just as modern... in their time and place. Do not make them sound like they've just stepped out some classic tragic play, with lengthy, pompous, and overly polite monologues and words that you yourself have to search for in a dictionary, much less your readers. Your characters are (were) alive people: they joked, cursed, hesitated, mumbled, put their feet in it... Make them speak with the (reasonably) modern language; think of it as translating from the language of that age into ours. Just watch out for clearly present-day expressions, slang words, social dynamics etc. that would be impossible in that day and time. A great example of that, in my opinion, is The Baroque Cycle by Neil Stephenson: he did an amazing job of conveying the spirit of the mid- and late 17th century through very much believable characters in what pretends to be authentic settings (except when he obviously tells tales - from the POV of an unreliable narrator) who speak in a clearly modern way.


As readers, we think of the "voice" of certain historical periods in terms of the literary styles of those times. The "voice" of a person who has lived in the 16th century is that of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The "voice" of a person from the 14th century is that of Chaucer.

So when I want a narration to sound like it was told by a person from a certain time, I emulate the style of the most eminent writers of that time. I do supplement this with published journals or letters, if they are available.

And when I attempt to write in the "voice" of a time from which audio and video recordings are available (e.g. movies), I use those.

I do not generally use sources unfamiliar to my readers. I write fiction, not a linguistic study, and I have 6 months to finish a novel if I want to make a living, and cannot spend months on research. The quickest and easiest way, therefore, to induce the image of a historic period in the minds of my readers is to use their preconceptions to awake it.

And in fact, the literary products of a time are usually a quite accurate rendering of that time's "voice". And they have the benefit of already having transformed the actual manner of speaking (as it might have been partially preserved in letters and other private writings of non-writers) into a literary style that is ready for me to use as is.

  • Hi @B. L. E., thanks for your input. This is good advice for crafting the narrative voice. I'm wondering about making characters (in their direct speech, as well as their writing and thoughts) both distinctive and authentic to their historical context. I think not every character should sound like a wordsmith, so there needs to be some variation, and it would be nice to differentiate them from the more literary narrative voice. Do you look for anything specific for your characters?
    – wordsworth
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 6:13
  • @wordsworth Maybe I'm a very insensitive reader, but to me all characters of one author mostly "sound" the same. There are some cases of characters that speak some distinct dialect or slang, but I usually find these ridiculous (as a reader) and don't emulate that (as a writer). I strongly believe in the voice of the author and am completely content with all characters speaking with that (same) author's voice. Writing is translating events into literature, and dialogue is a translation of speech into writing as well. Written dialogue shouldn't, in my opinion, attempt to emulate everyday speech.
    – user40570
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 6:19

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