A Disparate Trio: Characterization in the English Free Company Series
Guest Post by Evan Ostryzniuk, author of
Of Fathers and Sons: Geoffrey Hotspur and the Este Inheritance
The approach to creating characters differs greatly from literary genre to genre, since the respective readerships have certain expectations when they pick up this or that novel. The author must endeavor not only to render deep, detailed and sympathetic characters that are appropriate to the story, but convincing ones as well. This challenge is particularly acute for writers of historical fiction because they must instill in their characters a Weltanschauung with which they have little or no experience. Therefore, careful study of the period in question is required. This much is obvious. However, the author of historical fiction then faces the question of how to distribute these learned attitudes, ideas, prejudices, and understandings amongst his or her characters so that they can serve both the narrative and history in as honest and convincing a manner as possible.
The characters in the English Free Company series can be divided into three categories: 1) the three principal fictional characters; 2) true historical personages; 3) historical archetypes. The approach to each category has its nuances, but in this blog entry I will briefly discuss the main creative origins of the three principal fictional characters: Geoffrey Hotspur, Jean Lagoustine, Catherine the Astrologer.
From the top…
Geoffrey Hotspur (1374-1453) is an orphan squire and ward of the Duke of Lancaster, Sir John of Gaunt, currently training in the duke’s hall for squires in Avignon. As the most important of the three principals, I was exceptionally careful about making him at once distinct and original yet a man of and in tune with his times. To that end, I gave him physical attributes that would allow him to fit in with his peers and supply him the opportunity to excel and be noticed. Geoffrey has dark brown hair and an average complexion. His face possesses symmetry of features, which contemporaries considered the source of good looks, although the attention-grabber is his ice-blue eyes, which give him a powerful stare. Also, Geoffrey is very tall. During the Middle Ages, such a physical attribute would have accorded him a great advantage, especially in the upper strata of society. It would allow him to be a superior man of arms, which was all-important to the lordly order; it was a sign of divine favor – in contemporary folklore all great men were physically dominating; it was a sign of virility.
Developing an emotional profile for Geoffrey Hotspur, from which much of the novels’ conflicts arise, required an especially careful ‘matching’ of his personal situation with the fears and prejudices of the time. The ambition of any squire in the 14th century was to become a knight; however, for Geoffrey this ambition is paramount because of his status as a humble orphan. Family was the main determinate of hierarchy in the Middle Ages. Your family name, more than now, informed everybody about who you were and where your place in society should be. Anarchy was one of the great fears of the time, since famine, disease, war, and many other deadly uncertainties constantly threatened to ruin the very fragile society, and so people were very conscious about maintaining order wherever possible. Today, many orphans suffer from a fundamental personal insecurity because of their lack of family, which provides a range of support functions, but during the Middle Ages this insecurity was compounded by their place outside the natural order, in the medieval sense. By being alone, Geoffrey is instantly suspect and at a great disadvantage.
To compensate for this fundamental insecurity and as a means to reveal key aspects of medieval culture, I made Geoffrey gregarious. He loves companionship, male and female, young and old. Part of this attitude derives logically from his unfortunate status as an orphan, but much of the reasoning arises out contemporary society’s strong need for community. During the Middle Ages, more so than today, people lived together, ate together, worked together, and celebrated together in large groups. In an age with weak state institutions, limited technology and communications, and fear of solitude, all levels of society formed communities, clubs, or organizations. For medieval squires, this community took the form of confraternities. A squire had to join a confraternity for the sake of companionship, to be sure, but membership also cemented personal alliances, which was essential on the battlefield and for personal advancement. One had to prove oneself before witnesses. Without close friends, a squire, or a knight for that matter, was nobody. Sure, the classic knight errant wandering from adventure to adventure was a staple of medieval literature, but in every instance he remained an outsider and isolated until he rejoined his companions, and only then was he truly happy and content.
…to the bottom…
Jean Lagoustine (c.1371-14??) is essentially a foil to Geoffrey Hotspur. Where Geoffrey is tall and lean, Jean is short and stocky. Where Geoffrey has great ambitions to perform feats of arms, Jean has small ambitions to survive with some measure of security. With Jean, I wanted to expose readers to the lower orders of medieval society by creating a character that was both a part of and apart from conventional society. Jean’s origin story is more typical than Geoffrey’s, but it too demonstrates how society and circumstance helps form personality. Jean’s peasant father sent him from the village to the city to apprentice as a chandler – at least according to his own story! – but the work was boring and the regime too strict for him, so he fled the workshop and after living homeless for a while found work as an enforcer for a notorious underworld figure. Again, part of Jean’s story is typical for the age and some of it is extraordinary. However, like Geoffrey, he cannot survive in medieval society alone; he has a place, even if it is in the criminal communities. So, the need for companionship and community informs his decision to keep the English Free Company together, come hell or high water.
Part of the charm reading historical fiction is entering an almost alien society. Therefore, a study of the social history of the Middle Ages helped me to add color to the principals, allowing me to broaden my approach to creating these characters and unveiling their personalities through social interaction. This is essential to the genre as a whole but especially to writing stories about the High Middle Ages, since vertical social movement was rare at this time, leaving society highly stratified. The maid might know what her lady was up to, but she could never aspire to take her place. Also, while the main might recognize court gestures and protocols, they would be less sure of their meaning, because she would have no reason to use them on her social plane. Therefore, Geoffrey, as a squire and courtier, has no reason other than idle curiosity to learn what Jean is about, which explains why he could be rude to Jean in one instance and expect him to do the near-impossible in the next. In other words, Jean’s life is unnecessary and unsympathetic to him, no matter how the ex-enforcer is essential to his wellbeing. Knowing this aspect of period gives greater depth to the characters and more control to the author, since he or she will have better understanding of the limits and possibilities of the age. For example, Geoffrey is naturally arrogant and condescending to the lower orders – he cannot be any other way, just as Jean must be deferential to his betters, no matter how much he resents scraping and bowing. This tension helps drive the relationship, and by extension the novel.
My approach to creating characters is not limited to parsing academic sources, of course. I have been able to help bring my characters to life by applying and adapting cultural archetypes and icons. Chaucer’s squire from Canterbury Tales was a key literary source for producing Geoffrey Hotspur, since he serves the roles of contemporary, archetype and identifiable literary figure. While some of the inspiration for Geoffrey and Jean’s fractious relationship stems from well-worn tropes that are still used today, some of it comes from precise examples, such as the partnership between the knight and his squire from the classic movie “The Seventh Seal”. The reasons for me choosing this particular example include: historical believability, vivid characterizations, emotional resonance of the story itself, and the movie as a recognized source, since it is so widely referenced. The knight is proud, wise, chivalrous, and condescending to his servant, while the squire is deferential, clever, resourceful, and witty. They survive because their characters complement each other. The film might be fiction, but it does convincingly portray the interaction such persons might have had. This is the sort of balance amongst sources I must make.
…to the middle
Catherine the Astrologer (1368-14??) was the most challenging of the three characters to create mainly because in the novels she keeps herself so well guarded. Her motivations reflect a deep subtlety that is lost on both Geoffrey and Jean, and so she must remain a shadowy, uncertain figure. In the early novels, not even her surname is revealed and her fellow characters can only speculate on her origins! That said, like Geoffrey and Jean, her occupation and station go a long way towards informing her character. As an astrologer, Catherine has a place in medieval society, albeit near the periphery, since astrology was a mysterious and solitary profession, and therefore suspect.
Then, there is the challenge of Catherine’s gender. The medieval historical record is far poorer on women than on men, and what records that have been preserved mostly concern either saints or ladies of court. Chaucer was good for Geoffrey but not useful for Catherine because his women are too conventional, the wife of Bath notwithstanding. I could collect historical strands from the lives of common people into the bundle of neuroses that is Jean, yet any such collection for the unusual astrologer would be meager indeed. Therefore, I had to make quite a search to locate a convincing historical personage, cultural archetype, or academic study to form the base of my third principal, and I ultimately did find something suitable in the remarkable and true-to-life Julian of Norwich, a contemporary of Catherine’s, businesswoman, mystic, and great traveler. We know enough about her to understand how a woman in a rather ambiguous station and enjoying unusual powers would have not only survived in the medieval world, but also thrived.
So, there we have it – three disparate characters; three approaches to creating them.
I would like to thank Heather for hosting me, and I hope all of you enjoyed reading my modest offering as much as I enjoyed writing it.
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