Visualising historical characters

posted in: On writing | 0

One of the challenges I faced in writing “To Die a Dry Death” was creating real characters from the names Pelsaert mentions in his journal. I was sensitive to the fact that I was writing about real people who lived and died nearly four hundred years ago. All I had to go on was Pelsaert’s words and a swag of background research unearthed about some of the players. Most of them would have disappeared into anonymity, leaving not a ripple in the tide of history, except for the dramatic events of the wreck of the Batavia. Even then, shipwrecks happened; but few have reverberated through the centuries like this one, where a psychopath and his followers murdered more souls than the sea.

We have no real idea what any of the players looked like, not even Pelsaert. The one portrait attributed as him was apparently of another man. So I was at liberty to describe the characters as I wanted. Pelsaert came from Flanders so I imagined him as small and dark, Spanish-looking. Lucretia van der Mijlen was described as beautiful so I saw her as blonde haired and blue eyed. Jeronimus Cornelisz was devious, subtle and a manipulator of people. I have drawn him as a handsome man, the epitome of a con artist.

In my interpretation of events Captain Adriaen Jacobsz was something of a hero. Pelsaert described him as a drunkard and a womaniser and I don’t doubt both were true. He was also obviously a strong and courageous leader who had little time for men he considered weak, like Pelsaert. I’m not sure that I consciously decided to have him look like my father, but that’s what happened. There’s no comparison in character. My father was never, ever a womaniser and he didn’t drink but he was tough and hard, a man I respected and loved, even if I feared his temper. I could easily imagine him on a Dutch merchantman, the wind blowing through his hair (at least when he was younger).

Has something like that ever happened to you? How do you build the visual for your historical characters?