Family History Writing Challenge - Demonstrating an Ancestor's Character! | The Armchair Genealogist
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Family History Writing Challenge - Demonstrating an Ancestor's Character!

With only 5 days left in our family history writing challenge, it’s time to stay the course and make that last ultimate push to the finish line.  

Last week we discussed establishing a setting within your family history writing and we outlined various tools on how you can accomplish just that. This week I would like to demonstrate how you could reveal an ancestor’s character in your family history writing.

When writing about your ancestors you want your stories to be more than just a list of events and places, you want your readers to be able to relate to your ancestors. You want them to appreciate who they were and what made them tick.

How can you make your ancestor real?  How can you show character? By asking a few questions.

What does your ancestor stand for? What is he against? What were his or hers driving forces, lifetime ambitions, basic values? Answer these questions and you are well on your way to demonstrating an ancestor’s character.  

 How do you answer these questions, two ways, by looking at the events of their lives demonstrated in documents and by interviewing the living who had a direction relationship with him or her?

Inevitably, the choices our ancestors made, the trials and tribulations they endured show a great deal about their character. Don’t write these details as matter of fact. A journey across an ocean, to an unknown land, an unknown language, no money in your pocket  is not to be taken lightly. Think about the strength, the courage and the desire that it would take to make that journey. This reveals a great deal about a person's personality, combined with the many other events in a person's life, choices they made can profoundly demonstrate a person’s character.

If you have the impressions of others who knew your ancestor, there is no better source. However remember, the child or grandchild or great grandchild may only see one side of an ancestor’s character. Many things must be taken into consideration to demonstrate an ancestor’s true make-up. Consider interviewing not only grandchildren and children but also co-workers, friends, neighbours. We often consider interviewing the living as a way of uncovering their story, but they also hold a unique and individual perspective of their own individual relationships with family members who have passed. This is your window into those lives.

For example, when writing about my great-grandfather, it was difficult for me to see him past the quiet, serious man he appeared to a 10 year old girl. As I unravelled the events of his life and talked to his grandchildren and children, I saw him for the grandfather and father that he was, I saw his playful side, his pride, his patriotism. 

When his sole living daughter was able to describe for me their lives as children, the interactions within their household, the way her parents interacted, the nicknames they had for each other I could also see the husband and father that he was from a perspective separate of my own. Uncovering his journey to Canada, the events that led up to his arrival, and the future arrival of his siblings, I opened the window to see the young man, the brother and the son.  

His setting, his home surroundings, his workplace, his hobbies and interests all help paint a very vivid picture of a man that some of my relatives had never seen, even those who had met him. His favourite foods, his favourite chewing tobacco, the kind of clothes he wore, the car he drove, his mannerisms and temperament all helped to paint a picture for future generations.

 Just as we surmised in the establishing of a setting, the same holds true in demonstrating and ancestor’s character, it is in the details. The more details you can provide of an ancestor the more real and engaging they will be to the reader. 

Of course, some ancestors you may wish to write are unknowns. No relatives are alive to give you perspective.  How can you demonstrate the character of an ancestor where there is no living relative, through their actions, the events of their lives, the choices they made? A picture, a journal or a diary are all valuable assets in uncovering the character of an ancestor. In addition, what others have written about them, such as in an obituary or newspaper article could shed some light on their personality.

As you push through these last few days of the family history challenge, ask yourself, have I demonstrated my ancestor’s character? Will my readers understand and relate to him or her? Through the charm of your words will your family make a personal connection with their ancestor?

Related Reading
Family History Interview Questions
Establishing a Setting for Your Story 
Transforming a Dull Document into a Moving Story
How a Best Picture Nominee Can Help Your Writing