Thursday, February 27, 2020

How I Create Characters from Real People

By Jill Eileen Smith, Author of Star of Persia

I have written in many genres over the past thirty years, though biblical fiction is the one that is currently published. With most other genres, a novelist creates characters from scratch. Sometimes we take ideas from people we know. Sometimes a character will introduce herself to us by simply telling us her story.

When I’m dealing with people in the Bible, however, I’m telling the stories of people who lived in history. Their stories were preserved for us in Scripture, and I do all that I can to stay true to what we know. For instance, the Bible gives us a lot of detail about King David’s life. Studying his life is fascinating and will take you all over the Bible and into many outside sources to get a feel for his time and the places he traveled. But Scripture gives us very little about the women in his life.

I might find that Michal was a princess, daughter of Israel’s first king. She had four brothers, two half brothers, and one sister, five nephews and a controlling uncle, but I can’t tell you exactly how she felt about them or what her life was like living with an erratic, jealous father.

Esther is famous in Jewish culture because of the Feast of Purim, but even as I read her book in Scripture, I still start with little information about who she was, how she felt, who she knew and what her culture looked like. That’s where research and imagination come in.

When writing about a real person like Michal or Esther, I get to know all of the people around them, usually the men who get more page time. Then I try to envision what they might have looked like and find a picture that I can visualize for inspiration. I try to put myself in their places. How did Michal feel when she finally got to marry David, only to have her father chase him far away and give her to another man? How did Esther feel to have her adoptive father try to protect her, only to be caught up in the king’s beauty contest and shut up in the palace, with no chance of escape, in spite of his efforts?

A writer needs to stay true to whatever facts she has when dealing with real people. But where history or Scripture are silent, she can put herself in their place and imagine what might have been. In the end, real people of the past or present are not so very different than we are. Hopes and dreams, fears and folly follow each one of us. It is up to the writer to bring those emotions to life for the reader while keeping what is true intact. That is always my aim, and if we stay true to the material and to ourselves, we may find it easier than we expected.
Jill Eileen Smith is the bestselling and award-winning author of the biblical fiction series The Wives of King David, Wives of the Patriarchs, and Daughters of the Promised Land, as well as The Heart of a King and the nonfiction book When Life Doesn’t Match Your Dreams. Her research into the lives of biblical women has taken her from the Bible to Israel, and she particularly enjoys learning how women lived in Old Testament times. Jill lives with her family in southeast Michigan. Learn more at

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