Using a curious historical detail to build your story

In late November of 1183 AD, the Crusader castle of Kerak was beseiged by a Muslim army led by Sultan Saláh al-Dín, or صلاح الدين — better known in English as Saladin.  It was a retaliatory assault, in response to Christian knights attacking merchants.

During the seige, Saláh al-Dín made a very curious decision: he forbade his forces from bombarding part of the castle where he knew his enemies would be gathered.  Why?  Because he also knew they were gathering for a wedding.

Imagine the possibilities of an anecdote like this for advancing a narrative and/or character development.  In the actual event, the Sultan’s leniency was the result of negotiations between the Muslims and Crusaders but. as inspiration for fiction, the possible explanations for such a decision are as open as the writer’s creativity.

Even if you are not inclined to write historical fiction about the Crusades, or you don’t want to include a wedding in your novel, just imagine the literary punch of a powerful character (hero, villain, or otherwise) who withholds violence, refusing to press a clear tactical advantage, for reasons of sentiment or principle.

Is it a redeeming incident, one of Blake Snyder‘s Save The Cat moments, like when Al Pacino’s detective in Sea of Love lets the mobster get away because he’s with his kids?

Or, is there a deeper psychological reason, crouching like a spider in some dark corner of the psyche of your novel’s Saláh al-Dín analog, an emotional scar staying his or her hand?

In the larger narrative, does this incident function as a moment of weakness, a noble yet ill-considered gesture or a pained reaction to a nearly forgotten trauma, which ultimately unravels an otherwise mighty character’s plans … or sanity?

As a writer, one can never allow anecdotes like this to go un-noticed, un-tagged, and un-filed.  Note them, analyze them, and find ways to use them to deepen the emotional impact of your fiction.

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  1. It’s very interesting that my main storyline is kind of similar to the method you’ve discussed. My main character Sade could easily rat out her best friend Jackie for doing drugs, but she won’t because she refuses to get Jackie in trouble. She is also in denial that Jackie has a big problem. Sade thinks it will just go away and everything will be fine, as long as she is loyal and takes care of Jackie.

    I don’t know whether I should be motivating Sade’s actions by something further than just her love for Jackie, though. What do you think?

  2. I think adding an extra motivation couldn’t hurt, especially if there’s some sort of tension between the two motivations. It would take the conflict between the two characters and put it inside Sade’s soul.

    Sounds like an intriguing story!

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