Inspired by a Beloved Character

An interview with Nancy Blanton

Readers love character-driven fiction. We’ve all had our imaginations captured by a character (or characters) so well drawn that we feel compelled to dive into the story alongside them. That personal connection can be so powerful that we feel this character is someone we know — almost like a close  friend or family member whose trials tug at our heartstrings.

Some characters are so well-loved that we can read about them on social media where their fans compare knowledge of a character’s activities, interest, or appearance. They post and debate and argue over what he/she did or didn’t do, what they might do, or even what they should do. In fact, there’s an entire genre known as fan fiction in which avid readers will borrow an author’s characters and write new stories for them.

What is a Beloved Character?

But today, on the eve of the release of When Starlings Fly as One, we’re checking in with Irish historical fiction author Nancy Blanton to get her views on the topic. In reading her blog post on the topic I couldn’t help but notice: Blanton walks her talk. Nowhere does she expect her readers to fall in love with characters from whom she is distant.

She says, “When I use the term “beloved character” I mean first and foremost that the character must be loved by the author. A writer can’t possibly make a reader care about one of their characters unless they themselves first care very deeply about them — and know them extremely well. That knowledge and understanding is like relationships with real people: it shows itself over time.

We asked her about Merel de Vries, the protagonist of her latest novel, When Starlings Fly as One. As with many wonderful relationships, this meeting was purely serendipitous. “I wasn’t even thinking about the book or the story. I was in bed, browsing dreamily through my Pinterest feed. And there she was.”

“She stared at me from a small portrait, a headshot as we say, and not even head and shoulders. The painting was quite old and badly scratched, but the scratches looked like teardrops. Something about her dark eyes hooked me and I couldn’t sleep until I had found something about who she was. The post said only, “Head of a young woman, c. 17th century by an unknown Dutch artist”.

Follow the Clues

There was, however, an additional clue: word ‘ashmolean’ appeared in the caption. Living in the U.S., Blanton says she was barely familiar with the magnificent Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology on Beaumont Street, Oxford, England. Regardless of its holdings, this museum holds a great deal of historic sway: it is the world's second university museum and Britain's first public museum. The first of its buildings went up in the 17th century specifically to house the cabinet of curiosities that Elias Ashmole gave to the University of Oxford in 1677.

A preliminary cover featured Merel de Vries, the name the author gave to the woman in the portrait.

If you know that Blanton loves research every bit as much as she enjoys creating stories to share her findings, you can probably guess what came next. “I contacted them. They had the painting, but no further information about the subject or painter. In that case, I had a blank slate on which to build. I purchased the usage rights for my book cover, even before I had really started the manuscript.”

So, on one hand, the author was free to create a story to match the portrait. On the other, there really wasn’t much to go on. Or was there?

Portrait as Character Sketch

“From this portrait alone, I knew Merel was young, smart, petite, and a bit sad. The bow in her hair made her look younger than she probably was, but the grand pearl necklace and fine yellow gown said she lived as a person of wealth. I may never know who she really was, but I certainly hope I’ve reflected at least some of her truth.”

That the woman was Dutch initially seemed to be an obstacle, but actually provided the author with an unexpected — and perfect —  solution to writing about the 1641 Irish Rebellion against the English. Although her heart is forever and always with the Irish, Blanton hoped to approach this episode with as unbiased look as she could muster.

A Character’s Point of View

Since ‘histories are written by the victors,’ finding objectivity could prove difficult. The English side was well documented and recently the Irish perspective has become a bit easier to uncover. Creating a fairly young and mostly neutral protagonist would allow the reader to travel with Merel as she discovered both sides of the story and explored her own internal conflicts.

From there Nancy Blanton did what she typically does for a character. “I gave her a birthday, parentage, relationships, desires, flaws. Some of what I set up in the beginning changed as I progressed in the story, and learned more about her and how she would react in specific situations. I got to know her, and well before the end of the book, I loved her.”

We hope you do, too.