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A Memorable Character


Sarah tells us we need to create memorable characters.

I can’t think of a more memorable character than Peter Ellis’s Cadfael, and that ties in with the research everyone tells us to do. Alma Boykin’s excellent blog on ATH last week
is a good intro to history if that’s what you need to research.


Part of the reason Cadfael is so real to me is the totally authentic world he inhabits. It was painful to come to the end of the twentieth book and realize that there would be no more stories, that Ellis Peters—Edith Pargeter—was no longer with us.

And for the first time I was driven to do some historical research. Because I had to know what happened next. This involved lots of spelunking at the Houston main library, for histories that were probably well removed from original sources.

But let me tell you, there’s stuff happening that has Cadfael’s fingerprints all over it.

Oh, and “Real life can do stuff that a fiction writer can’t get away” is everywhere you look.

The Empress Maud’s son Henry (the future King Henry II), aged 14, hires a bunch of knights on promise of payment. They crossed the channel, besieged a couple of castles unsuccessfully. His little army walked. The Empress had no money, and in fact retreated to Normandy later that year. His uncle, Robert Earl of Gloucester refused to pay for the debacle . . . So Henry applied to his mother’s cousin, King Stephen . . . who sent him enough money to go back to Normandy.

For those of you not familiar with this mess, this war was between Empress Maud and King Stephen. Yep. The Bad Guy sent him home. Okay, maybe you could get away with that in a book. Maybe.

Or the Earl of Leicester persuading the barons on both sides to refuse to fight? Leaving King Stephen and Prince Henry riding up and down opposite sides of a river both shouting about their traitorous supporters? Nope. No way.

My main question, at this point, is how the heck did they make history so bloody boring in school?

And I really ought to see what I can find on Project Guttenberg, my notes being totally insufficient to re-satisfy my curiosity a decade later.

However, the best research find was actually at my childhood home.


My Dad never saw a book he didn’t covet, the older the better. Where he came by these I have no idea . . . but I sort of remembered them . . . and sought them out the next time I was in California.

And there it was, full of issues between King Stephen and the Church. But far away from Shrewbury. Really, it’s silly to imagine an old monk had anything to do with any of it . . .


Cadfael himself is totally fictional, but what, you ask, about the rest of the characters in the stories? When William Fitzalan was reinstated as sheriff after King Stephen’s death, he eradicated every mention of King Stephen’s sheriff. Hugh Beringar was made up whole cloth. Abbot Radolfus (real person), died the next year and Prior Robert (real person) became the new Abbot.

Cadfael’s in trouble.


And since it’s December, I’ll put my old Christmas Story up for free:


  1. Mark in Mayenne #

    History boring at school?! They even made biology boring. FFS

    December 16, 2016
    • That is one of the wonders of the American educational system. They made history boring.

      December 16, 2016
  2. I love the Cadfael books. 😀 Much better than the TV show. (Which did have its moments, and the actors were usually spot on.)

    December 16, 2016
  3. Luke #

    I challenge the assertion that King Stephen was the bad guy.
    While he was certainly bad for England, nearly all of the decisions that led to so much woe were rather shockingly honorable. (Quite possibly up to, and including seizing the crown. It isn’t far-fetched that William would disinherit the person directly responsible for his death with his last breath. It was certainly in his nature to do so. Stephen shows little sign of being duplicitous about much of anything before or after. Indeed, had he been ruthless enough to fake a deathbed pronouncement, he also likely would have been ruthless enough to crush the rebellion on one of the many occasions when he had the chance.)

    December 16, 2016
    • Yeah, but from the punk kid’s POV he was the enemy.

      December 16, 2016
  4. I kind of left out the “And that how you know a character is memorable. The readers obsess about him.” and I could have added “What characters do you obsess about?”

    December 16, 2016
    • TRX #

      Most characters, I’m just riding along behind their eyes watching the show. Doesn’t seem to matter much if it’s first or third person. Unless a character’s name is important in itself, it’s just a POV identifier.

      A considerably smaller number of characters, I’m entirely a third-party observer, usually with a running commentary of “you dumbass…” or “huh?”

      Since the subject of memorable characters has been coming up lately, I’ve been thinking about it a bit. And there are only a handful of characters that are memorable to me by name.

      Generally, I’m more likely to remember their name if they’re offstage for extended periods of time, but still important to the story.

      December 16, 2016
  5. Speaking of Edith Pargeter, she seems to have thought her best work was not Cadfael but the Heaven-Tree trilogy. I haven’t read everything she wrote (although I’ve read a lot of it), but what I have read suggests that she was right about this. Highly recommended

    December 16, 2016
    • They were a bit too grisly for my tastes.

      December 16, 2016
      • That is, they were incredibly powerful. I ended with my stomach in a knot, and I will never read them again. If you like stories that raise the emotions to the highest degree possible, you’ll love them.

        Her contemporary mysteries were good, but not Cadfael good.

        December 16, 2016
  6. Two authors who “cross the streams” of history and fiction very, very well are Antonia Fraser and Peter Tremayne/ Peter Beresford Ellis (Sister Fidelma novels). Tremayne is a scholar of Ireland and his work makes the books really come to life, although you may learn more about ancient Irish law and medieval church spats than you intended to,

    December 16, 2016
    • Luke #

      I like Sharon K. Penman quite a lot, although some of her stuff is better than others. (I give “Falls the Shadow” and “The Sunne in Splendor” top marks.)

      And for more recent history, and rather more fiction, is there anybody else even in Tim Powers’ league?

      December 16, 2016
      • Good question. He’s very good at making supernatural history seem entirely plausible.

        December 16, 2016
    • Also his personal theories are acted out as always right, as opposed to those of others. But that kind of “message” is pretty common in historical fic.

      December 16, 2016
  7. This is why I write HF myself — to encourage a fascination with history!

    December 16, 2016
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      Fiction in historical times is part of why I got into history.

      December 16, 2016
  8. That Wimsey annotation site from the other day is still messing with my head. Finding out he was originally Sayers’ Sexton Blake fanfic character…. freeeeeaky!

    December 16, 2016
  9. I had to hunt up Drake’s book ‘Patriots’ to find this, it’s from the forward:
    ‘The trouble with history survey courses is that they only have space to tell you that X did Y and the result was Z. That may well be correct, but it leaves you with the impression that X did Y to achieve Z. More often than not it turns out that X didn’t imagine Z, and chances are that he/she didn’t even intend to do Y. Remember, Columbus died convinced that he’d discovered not America but a new route to India.’
    And goes on to list what he discovered of how Fort Ticonderoga really was captured, by who, and how. Most of which I’d never heard or read in a history book in school.

    The teaching of history needs a lot of work.

    December 18, 2016
    • Yep. The problem is, there’s so much of it, and not enough time to teach it in the detail it deserves.

      December 19, 2016

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