I always feel a sense of responsibility when creating my characters to get them right. I can never forget these were real people, who lived their lives, ate, drank, fell in love and, yes, made mistakes just as we do. In all honesty it is probably an impossible dream to get them completely right. The history of these Dark Age people is often incomplete and even when it is not, it is open to interpretation. Really the best I can hope for is that I have at least created characters they would be pleased with.*
However when I have to create a character who has become known as The Great, the responsibility seems very much bigger. The first time I needed to do this was in Three Times the Lady, when we are introduced to Athelwulf’s young son, Alfred. Creating this character was a lot of fun, mainly because this was an Alfred who was not yet Great. This was a child, already wise beyond his years, but still a child who could get excited about being on a boat and behave in a stroppy fashion with his guardians. It was also enjoyable to plant the seeds of his greatness in his intelligence, his quiet, watchful ways and in the way “when he speaks, everyone listens”, hinting at his natural leadership. He also seemed to be someone who even at his tender years, made an impression on those he met. Hopefully it is no surprise he later became known as Alfred the Great. (and yes, I couldn’t resist a few opportunities to describe him as Great in the book!)
In The Saxon Marriage I have two characters who would become known as The Great. For the younger of the two, Bruno, creating him was not dissimilar to Alfred. This was a child, slightly mischievous, and a long way from his greatness. Over the course of the book he starts to grow into his reputation as a scholar of some repute, but even at the end he is still a teenager. However creating Otto was a very different story. For the first time I have a main character who becomes known as The Great. Yet at the beginning it was not so different, for this was an Otto who was not yet Great. At the beginning of the book he is, as the historian, Michael Wood describes him in this excellent article, a “17-year-old toughie”. Over the course of the book, he grows in experience and wisdom. Is he Great by the end of the book? Well, I shall let the readers decide, but he surely is at least getting there! But perhaps the question is also to who else does he owe his greatness? His father, Henry the Fowler, whose role I looked at in Great Dads of the Dark Age? His close advisors and allies such as Duke Hermann of Swabia? But most of all the book looks at the role of his first wife, Eadgyth. Like so many of the women of this era, much about her remains unknown. But she was at his side from the age of seventeen, as he took his first steps to power, through the troubles of the early years of his reign. How much of his greatness does he owe to her?
*Charles the Bald, I don’t care if you’re not pleased with how you’re portrayed. You shouldn’t have put your son’s eyes out.