Writing Good Living History Characters for Re-enactors

This second post in the living history series is on creating good living history characters.  The previous blog post was on the five steps for scripting living history events, of which creating your living history characters is the fifth step.

Cooking snacks for soldiers at a living history event
Cooking snacks for soldiers at a living history event

Living history events are a sort of promenade theatre with a lot of improvisation. Re-enactors are often mingled with the public, and many will be answering questions one to one. So living history characters need to be more robust than if you were writing for another medium.

Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Outline the scenario
  2. Work out what characters you need for the scenario
  3. Provide background for each character
  4. Define limits for improvisation
  5. Cast people as your main characters & brief them

1. Outline Your Scenario

Mass-produced colour photolithography on paper...
Mass-produced colour photolithography on paper for Toy Theatre; Romeo and Juliet (background and surroundings removed) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Decide what your scenario is, and how you want it to go. Let’s take as an example a scenario involving a young woman becoming pregnant out of wedlock. This was fairly common in the past. What we need to decide is what the obstacle is to her marrying her lover (if there isn’t an obstacle then it becomes a scenario about arranging a wedding rather than about pregnancy out of wedlock). Some of the options here are that her lover is:

  • already married
  • of the wrong social class to be an acceptable match
  • away from the parish (with the army, travelling, or was possibly just passing through)

There are of course a whole load of other options on top of those. You just need to pick one. Also the objection could be from the parents of either party and not from the lovers (think Romeo & Juliet). Either way we’re going to have a parish court involved to help remove the obstacle (or provide a solution).

2. Defining your Living History Characters

The first thing you need is to understand what characters you need.

Our primary living history characters will be the young woman, and her lover. We’ll also need members for a parish court, at the least a constable and a couple of elders. We’ll also need some witnesses to give ‘evidence’.

You might want to draw a relationship diagram with your list of characters. Especially you need to work out where the conflict arises and who knows what.

3. Background for Living History Characters

Main characters

They both need to have details on their relationship and social position within the village/town. Both need an objective, if they wish to marry then there should be an obstacle for the court to overcome. Conflict is what drives stories, so this needs to be there.

Parish Court Members

A parish court looking into this will also have a constable and a couple of elders to hear the case. These are recurring main characters, they can be involved in many scenarios. They also need a bit of background. Who are they and what are their responsibilities on the parish court. What is the due process and where are the limits of the decisions they can make.


There will also be a need for witnesses, the parents of the young woman at the very least. Depending on the tack you take there may be another candidate for paternity, or a reason  why the lover cannot marry the young woman. All of the witnesses need a few lines on what they believe they know as facts in the case. They might also have a motivation for giving evidence.


4. Limits on Improvisation

We’re encouraging improvisation, but we need to set ground rules. The idea is to get our players to think like people from the period. So we need to give them just enough freedom to do that well and be entertaining to those watching. Some ground rules might be:

  • Don’t invent new characters or evidence (this risks the writer/director having to add people on the fly)
  • Stay in character and remember the briefing you have been given
  • Remember that no-one else knows the whole picture, so make sure to give the information you have if it is helpful (but conceal, dissemble and lie if it helps achieve your objectives and is in character)
  • If in doubt, be quiet or say that you do not recall.

5. Casting

The most believable characters are well rounded. Each person should, at the very least, know their age, occupation and connection to the scenario. It works best if people play someone analogous to their modern self.

Scripting Living History for Re-enactors – in Five Steps

It has been quite a while since I was last involved in scripting living history for an event. It has also been a while since I attended one, but I spent this weekend at the ECWS living history site at Newport Pagnell. The ECWS living history has come on a long way over the last few years. There is an excellent small town feel to it with a load of talented people showing a wide range of skills and aspects of 17th century life. This is how it should be.

The next stage in the evolution is scripting living history cameos so that there is a hook for the public to learn more. About a decade ago the Fairfax Battalia, now sadly gone, saw this and ran a series of living history events. I was lucky enough to be able to script some of our parish court events. There’s a YouTube video of one of these

Scripting living history

The thing about scripting living history is that you have to make sure there’s a realistic historical perspective. You also tend not to have much, if any, rehearsal time. The cast are usually volunteer members of a reenactment society. My regiment only meets up at events and you can’t be sure exactly who will be there.

There’s also a need to make it flow, and capable of dealing with unexpected interjections. Often you want a bit if audience participation, the aim is to engage people with appropriate history. The best way around this is to keep the script light and make the players improvise around a theme.

There are three key elements when scripting living history

  1. Background briefing (a general outline of the time & theme – see below)
  2. Recent events timeline (so people know what is general knowledge of recent events)
  3. Character briefings (individual to each player, and not shared knowledge)

Step 1 – pick a topic

The key purpose of scripting living history is to engage people with history and give them insights into life in the past. Most of the reenactors do living history so that they can better understand the period they depict. Having kit, reading books and putting on a display goes so far. Scripting living history takes it a step further.

The key question is – What do you want to learn about?

Sometimes your event sponsor will bring this with them. Sometimes the group will come up with it for you. Things I’ve been involved in at events have included:

  • Death and funerals
  • Parish courts, covering fornications, poor relief, theft, neighbour disputes, itinerant vagrants etc
  • Weddings
  • Military courts martial
  • Ale houses and drunkenness


Step 2 – Research actual historical examples

It sounds obvious, but if you are going to set up living history scenarios then you need to read and understand the actual history. Don’t work off what you imagine might have happened. Find some real first person accounts of the thing you are interested in.

When I was researching the parish courts I got some books about the subject, including some period manuals for parish officers and justices of the peace. I also read a load of parish records summarising cases dealt with in West Yorkshire (because they’d been transcribed online). This gave me a rich vein to work with.

It also helps when explaining to the public, if you can say ‘this actually happened’ and give them a location and date. You go from entertainment to education with that one step.

Step 3 – Write Background Briefing

Once you know the history it is time to actually write your script. For these events it is helpful to have some general background for the reenactors to share before the event. However don’t publish the whole script, or even any details.

The background brief should completely fit on one piece of A4 paper in 12 point text with one inch margins. If it is longer than that no-one will read it properly. More to the point they won’t remember it.

Put the following in the brief

  • The date and location of the scenario (i.e. we are in the Parish of Birstall in the Autumn of 1638)
  • Some key facts about the theme,
    • what it is,
    • myths about it,
    • period attitudes etc
  • An outline of what the group will be doing to explore the theme and what roles there will be for people to play

The purpose of the brief is twofold. One is to ensure that all members of your group understand what is likely to happen. The other is to seek volunteers for the roles that you need. You should try and circulate this several weeks ahead of the event, and follow up a week ahead.

At this point no-one has any details of the script nor of the scenarios. This is important.

Step 4 – Produce a Recent Events timeline

This helps people form their character’s memories with historical context. In 1638 a 45 year old might just remember the old Queen dying and the Scottish King coming south. They’ll certainly remember the coronation of King Charles I. A 15 year old wouldn’t remember either, other than from the stories they’d been told.

We usually do events set in the midst of the British civil wars, so it is useful for people to have an understanding of recent events that the people at the time would have known about. It makes it much easier for knowledgeable reenactors to stay in first person roles.

A useful step for people is to write their age at the time of the event next to the timeline. E.g. I am 44, at a 1638 event I would have been 31 for King Charles I’s coronation, and old enough to remember his father’s coronation too. If the event was 1648 then I would only have been 21 and wouldn’t even have been born when James I was crowned.

Step 5 – Do detailed role backgrounds

Each role needs a personalised briefing. The level of detail depends on how key the role is. For the primary roles you want a bit of back story as well as grounding in the lead up to the start of the scenario. You should also set them an objective to seek from the scenario.

This is the hardest part of scripting living history, so more on this in the next part.