I am Game – Using My Son’s Christmas Gift to Get to Know My Characters Better

Writers are always looking for ways to get under their characters’ skins.  Only fully realized characters have the ability to make books come to life and please readers.  That means knowing far more about each of our characters than readers ever will.  We have to “wear” our characters (no, not in a “Silence of the Lambs” way).  We have to be able to react instinctively as them to plot points and events in our novels as they arise.

The first step as a historical writer is, of course, historical research.  We research, research, and research waiting for that “genesis moment”—the moment when a character’s voice sounds inside our head for the first time.  After the “genesis moment” writers have varying techniques for getting to know their characters better (questionnaires, lists of character history and details, etc).

I’ve decided to play a board game with mine.  Here, live, on the blog. No kidding.

This year for Christmas my elementary-aged son received “The Ungame.”  Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of it, I hadn’t either until recently when he started talking about it after playing with a friend.  My son is a fairly reticent child – reserved even.  So when he came home enthusiastically raving about a game that was all about talking, sharing opinions and feeling, and learning about your fellow players I knew it would be making an appearance under our tree.

As of this writing I have played The Ungame three times.  I love the darn thing.  It has asked me to reflect upon and answer some pretty significant questions (“What would you do if you were told you were going to die soon?”).  I’ve even learned some new things about the man I’ve been married to for more than two decades—a man whose sentences I am fully capable of finishing (though he doesn’t like that so much).

So this morning I thought why not play with my sisters, Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence?  Before I begin I hereby declare that I have the actual game board on my desk, that I will be rolling actual dice, and that I will be selecting the top card off the pile (a shuffled pile) when the game requires any player to draw a card.  Here goes:

[Sophie—the startling orange game piece—rolls]: 5!  That’s an Ungame spot.  I get to ask another player a question.

Marguerite, what comes to your mind when you think about your childhood?

[Marguerite of Provence, Queen of France]:

The landscape of Provence; the Court of my father, Raymond Berenger, Count of Provence; and, of course, my sisters.  I thought all families were as happy as ours and all courts were as warm and hospitable. [Sighs]

Shall I roll next?

[Eleanor of Provence, Queen of England]:

No Marguerite! It is my turn.  We are going clockwise.

[Eleanor—royal purple—rolls]: 6!  That’s MightyMountain.  Hm, Eleanor has to talk about a time she’s felt challenged by something.

My most recent challenge was acting as Regent of England for nearly ten-months while His Majesty was inGascony.  My appointment was outside of English custom and I wanted to do such a good job that none could afterward question the wisdom of Henry’s choice.  My largest task was raising money to keep Henry and his troops in the field, and to pay the French to stay out of the conflict.  I ended up paying Alphonse of Poitiers (Louis IX ofFrance’s brother) over three-thousand pounds sterling from my own allowance to keep him out of the war.

 Your turn Marguerite.

 [Marguerite—playing black—rolls]: 1.  An Ungame spot.  Marguerite draws a question card.

 Sophie, to whom can you turn if you need to be comforted?


Doubtless like you, my mind turns immediately to my sister.  She’s always loved me unconditionally.  If I need to hear a kind word she will provide it—of course if I have a stern word coming she’ll provide that too but only after comforting me.

[All ladies laugh.  Sophie rolls again]: 2.  An Ungame spot.


Marguerite, what is something you want people to remember about you?


That I saved my husband Louis from captivity and likely death in theHoly Land.  Because I am quiet and try always to behave in a ladylike manner I fear that people underestimate my will and my ability to act decisively when such action is needed.

[Eleanor rolls]: 5.  An Ungame  spot.

Marguerite, if you have ever felt ‘brokenhearted’ talk about it.

[Marguerite, hesitates, casts Eleanor a meaningful look, then speaks]:

I have been heartbroken more than once.  Early in my marriage I believed myself in love with my husband—I was certainly infatuated.  Between the demands of his mother and his God, Louis drew further and further away from me, leaving me very lonely.  So Louis broke my heart first, but perhaps nothing is more heartbreaking than the death of a child and I have had that sorrow.

[Marguerite rolls]: 2.  Takes a card.

Eleanor, talk about the most loving person you know.


Without doubt my husband Henry.  It makes me furious how harshly people judge him.  He is no statesman—though it pains me to say it—but he is such a good husband and father.  He is entirely faithful to me.  There has never been even the rumor of a royal mistress.  And he wants me to be happy.  He can be a worrier, as during my pregnancy with Edmund when he ordered 1000 tapers kept burning before Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury and another 1,000 at St. Augustine’s, all for the delivery of a second son and my safety.  But what woman could fail to see the love underlying such concern?  As for the children, Henry is besotted with them.  Absolutely besotted.

By the way, am I winning this game?  How do we know who wins?


There is no “winner” in The Ungame.  It’s an un-competitive learning game.


Pshaw, everything in life has winners and losers.  [Turning to Marguerite]  But if I must tie then I am happy to do so with my sister The Queen of France.

[Marguerite inclines her head, graciously]


 On that happy note I declare our game at an end.  Who is in favor of some wine and sugar-coated aniseeds?


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