Posted by: Aunt Magaidh | March 5, 2010

Musings of a Ren Faire Newbie – Part 3, Character Building

Disclaimer:  If someone takes issue with what I write here, please understand that as a newbie, I can only speak to what I have experienced over the last couple of years.  I don’t know much about the politics or history of the various guilds, performers, or faires.  No disrespect is intended.  Remember, people, this is my personal experience and opinion, not gospel.

As I said in previous postings, my family and I are new to the Faire world.   In Part 1, I talked about taking advantage of the Renaissance Symposium as a crash course training to participate in Renaissance faires.  In Part 2, I sorta covered practical stuff that I learned during my first two years that can make the experience more comfortable.  In this part, I want to walk through what I wish someone had explained to me about creating a character.

…Once upon a time, we joined a guild.  This guild has a lot of experience and seems quite knowledgeable about the faire world.  When we first joined the guild, we were given very clear expectations of what garb was acceptable, what other people did (weapons demo, dyeing, cooking, keeping the encampment organized, guild management).  During our make-it-mend-it-fix-it meetings, people explained what pieces of equipment and props were used for.  We bonded over rope binding, fireproofing, painting, and washing.

Life was good.  But I needed something…I needed to know how to fit in the guild, how to build a character that had a place in the guild.

My guild leaders all said to find something I liked doing and then build the character around that.  They didn’t really give details of what the guild was portraying as a unit, just that we were the household of a Scots Chief.   I read the character descriptions on the guild website, and that helped, but not completely.  I didn’t get a clear idea of how all the pieces (roles) fit together, so I didn’t know where to start to figure out how Husby, Daughter, and I would fit in.  Heck, as a newbie I didn’t know what were the parts of a household of this type.  I can see why they were so casual about just picking something that we wanted to do: they didn’t want to tell us what we had to be.   While very casual and encouraging, this was also frustrating because it means we newcomers didn’t know what was possible.

I like structure.  There, I’ve said it.  Not super anal-retentive structure, but a good solid foundation.   As a Virgo, I like knowing what the roles are and what the relationships are between the characters as well as the duties of each person.   I needed some way of making up a background to feel comfortable playing at faire.   So I made up a story that I was a spinner (because I do that in real life) married to a navigator in the Lord of the Isles’ fleet. (Husby became a navigator because he knows about astronomy and sailors used astronomy to navigate.)  It was enough to give us a foundation for the first year.

But I’ve noticed that patrons really like to know about who you are and if you don’t have a solid answer with thought out details, you kinda blow the illusion of being a 16th century person at faire.  I started to piece together bits and pieces of where I came from and what I knew and why I knew it.  I still wasn’t happy with how I could answer a patron, so at the recent symposium I took a class called Character Development, taught by a long-time Rennie named Barky.  Barky summarized how to create a character in 5 questions:

  1. What’s your character’s name?
  2. What’s your character’s job?
  3. What does your character do for fun?
  4. Why is your character at (market) faire?
  5. What can you do with this information and character with the patron?

Aha!  I had been on the right track!  But this was the first time that someone had given me a list of questions to really answer and flesh out and connect the pieces.  (If you ever played Dungeons and Dragons, you’re at an advantage.  It’s basically the same except you have to justify everything you know and do instead of relying on a high dice roll.)  Here are the answers to those questions and how I’ve developed them for the last couple of years.

What is your character’s name? Spinner Magaidh inghean Uilleam

When we decided to join a guild, Husby was interested in the Scottish reenactment guilds so that we could honor his ancestry.  Husby’s Scottish ancestors came from the Clan MacAlpine –  so the Clan MacAlpine Society website gave me the ways to spell our family name.  McAlpine is the modern spelling, the older Gaelic spelling is MacAilpein.  We went with the anglicized version: MacAlpine. (We may yet change to the Gaelic spelling, but I have to work on Husby.  There may be a point of diminishing returns.)

It was harder to pick a first name.  They say to use a variation of your own name if possible, but I was the third guildmember with the same name and the fifth guildmember to have a name that started with a “k” sound.  During the 2nd meeting with the guild I learned that my guildmaster has a hard time getting the right name out of his mouth when calling to one of the five of us “k” people:  “Kathryn, Krys, Kaitlin, Kayla, Cate, Kat…Argh!”   Nightmares of elementary school began haunting me…so I figured I’d find a faire name that I simply liked the sound and meaning of.

You can research the common names of the period for the part of the world your character comes from.   There is a list of common Elizabethan names in Life in Elizabethan England: A Compendium of Common Knowledge.  The SCA does a lot of research on names that are appropriate.  There are baby name books.  I took the easy way.  Off to the online baby names websites…typed in “Gaelic baby names girl”…Aine, Brana, Mairghread… and finally, Magaidh.

Now the hard part is getting my guildmates, and guildmaster, to use it.  (“Kathryn, Krys, Kaitlin, Kayla, Kat…Argh!” )

What is your job at faire? Spinner in the Chief’s household.  I also help the dyer with her dye pots. I also cook.  I am a wife.

Some of this grows organically, from our interests and skills.  I spin and knit so I have my gig as spinner and capper.  (See my snarking on period knitting in Part 1.)  When I met Dame Kaitlin, we spoke about how I could spin the wool and she could dye it.  Instant gigs.  Others develop because of some event, like the faire where the Chief addressed me as “Cook” in absence of the Chatelaine.  It was my first season at faire and the Chatelaine wasn’t able to come to many of the events.  I was the person who was getting the luncheon together and knew what was prepared.  It was a natural fit.

A note about being “a wife”: The Chief’s Lady once complained that there aren’t enough wives portrayed at faire.  There are soldiers and jugglers, merchants and nobles.  We’re a bit short on the portrayal of common, ordinary people at market/faire.  So I took it as a job to make sure that I interact with my husband at faire, go shopping, make meals in my character.  It’s starting to work…Husby is starting to address me as “Wife” when we are walking around the streets of faire and we are even starting to come up with a gig where I keep being drawn into the shops at faire and he has to retrieve me. (There have been some amused looks from patrons, particularly the husbands.)

What do you do for fun at faire? I go shopping.  I look for other spinners to compare techniques with.  I make cordials and trade tastes with other cordial makers at faire.  I like to listen to the singers.  I go to the plays.

Two points here: 1) this is what your character does for fun and 2) this is what YOU do for fun at faire.  Remember, this is a hobby and we’re supposed to have fun.  Sometimes it overlaps.  The important thing to remember is that as a performer I need to stay in character when I am out of my guildyard and in the streets of the faire.  I really do like to do these things, but I am doing my best to do them while in my character!  I thoroughly enjoyed watching Shakespeare’s company performing a piece of Romeo and Juliet for the Queen, but I also made sure to swoon and tear up and comment about how dreamy Romeo was when my companion and I were sitting in the audience.  (We had fun with that.)

Why is your character at (market) faire? Why do I travel with the Laird? Well, the new Laird is taking a once in a lifetime trip out of the Glencoe Valley to find trading partners and expanding the wealth and knowledge of the clan.  I help the Chatelaine with the cooking and also am to meet with the master weaver to inquire about training and to get spinning work.

I stole most of this info from the guild website. One of my goals this year is to find out what the Chief has as an update of why we are at faire.

What can you do with this information and character with the patron? I educate the patron curious about handspinning.  I explain the differences between a spindle and a spinning wheel, I show them the wool processing steps.  I do cooking demonstrations with period foods.  I experiment with dyeing while helping the dye maven with her pots.  I connect with fiber artists at faire when they come up to ask questions about what materials I’m using.  I show faire customers a non-English, non-noble working class character.

And here are a couple more questions and tips that helped me flesh out my character.

What are skills, interests, or talents that you have? I cook, sew, knit, spin, camp, and garden in my modern life.  I’m the daughter of a (seriously obsessed) fisherman, so know a lot about how to cook with seafood.  These are part of my knowledge I can bring to my faire character.  Although many people play at faire as a hobby or escape from our mundane world, we have the opportunity to bring our skills and interests into our faire world.  I kept hearing comments about how I should figure out how I knew so much about trees and fish and spinning because the guild portrays a Highland clan and it is a barrenish environment with few trees and lots of cattle (not sheep).  I figured I had to find a way to explain my knowledge and that’s where location became important.

Where does your character live? I originally chose Oban, Scotland as our family home because it is a town on the west coast of Scotland and looked good on Google Earth.  Unfortunately, after I researched it, I discovered it was founded in 1794, AFTER the distillery was established. (Booze saves the day!)  Oops. It didn’t exist in the 16th century as a town. Back to the drawing board.

I went to the Clan MacAlpine Society website to see the history of the family.  Bingo.  Tons of information!  I found the location of the clan, the family seat, and the descendant clans that would have existed in the 16th century.   This was incredible information to help us figure out how our characters developed.  Knowing that the clan had become landless by 1300, meant that we would have a reason to be in the area, but not really stuck to one area….Knowing that the family seat was in Argyllshire justified how we could be allied with the Lord of the Isles, the Chief of MacIains.   It became so much easier to create a history that fit in our guild!

I then looked for an area where my own character could come from that incorporated my own interests and knowledge.  Oban is just south of the mouth of Loch Creran.  I checked into the geographical, horticultural, and wildlife of Loch Creran – is a really nice looking place.  Diverse enough to justify the stuff I know in my modern life.  It has a fishery and diverse species of flora and fauna.    I found Rhugarbh, Loch Creran, Scotland and researched their history a bit, to make sure that the area had human habitation in the 16th century. (Hint: if there is a castle there, check for the history of the castle.  Some of them are too modern for the Elizabethan period.  Others may have been built on the remnants or ruins of an older fort or castle.)

I found a comprehensive brochure (put out by the Scottish government) on the flora, fauna and fish of Loch Creran which gave me a lot of information.  I know that there are treacherous tides and murky water that make it hard to enter and leave the loch, but make it a good place to put in and do repairs.  I know that we would have eaten a lot of different fish and animals and plants because of the diversity of the area – winkles, mussels, clams, scallops, salmon, sea trout, herring, haddock, cod (another govt report on the fisheries supports this info), a variety of sea birds would provide us with meat and eggs.  Stories of selkies would be supported by the large population of seals,otters, dolphins and porpoises that are there.  There is a history of crannogs (stone houses) and standing stones. There was a medieval forge and Loch Creran was known for arrow heads.  There is a section on native woodlands and forests, which justifies why my character would be familiar with trees that are so rare in the highlands.  The site talks about the Campbells building a castle in the late 16th century so it justifies why my family would have left.  It mentions the MacIain massacre in the late 17th century, helping to justify that there was still travel of my clan through the area after the period that we portray.  Yes, net surfing can help you define a lot about your character’s knowledge and help you develop gigs! (I’m working on more cooking gigs this year.)

The spinning part was also researched.  I discovered that parts of Scotland (Shetlands, Orkneys …) used to be Norway.  That justified how I could have a top whorl spindle – the Norse -and Vikings – used top whorled spindles as well as bottom whorled spindles.  That’s useful for answering queries or criticisms that I’m not using period appropriate technology.  The trading that moved goods up and down by ship (there is a history of shipwrecks on the west coast of Scotland) could explain how I got access to someone who knew about spinning and wool.

Ask other Rennies about their characters. I also pulled on the expertise of other Rennies to flesh out my character.  At last year’s symposium I met a performer who plays a Renaissance sailor. Mr. Smee of the Dauntless was a treasure!  During a conversation about garb, he asked if I could make a thrummed cap for him (yes, no problem)…I then asked him about sailors along the west coast of Scotland.  He told me how it would be important for them to know safe ports and harbors, how they would shelter in communities there (sometimes for extended periods of time during repairs), how goods AND knowledge would be traded.  Woo hoo!  I suddenly had strong support for my character’s family location, why I would have the big cast iron pots in our guildyard (my dowry), and how I could have learned spinning in a cattle focused land.  I was so grateful that he shared his research information with me.

Whew!  Yes, some of this delving into my character is overkill.  But come on… isn’t reenactment about the details and aren’t most faire people into a little overkill?  But at least I know a lot more about who I am as a 16th century character.

So, do you want to know a bit about me…I mean, my faire character?

My name is Magaidh inghean Uilleam and I am married to Beinn MacAlpine these many years. I have one child, Euna.  My father is Uilleam Porteous, a fisherman. My mother is Janneth.  She used to weave baskets until the stiffening took her hands. They are both strong in the old blood and so I follow them in their small, dark manner. My Beinn is tall and fair and loves his hills overlooking the sea. Euna is my joy, a bright girl who takes my color and her father’s legs and keen mind.

Beinn grew up with Clan MacDonald of Sleat, in the Isles of Skye, traveling up and down the west coast and among the islands as a navigator on one of the Old Laird’s ships because of his fine star lore and map reading. Beinn and I did court when his ship limped to our fishing village for repairs following a terrible storm.  We were married when the priest did travel to our village to christen and bless that spring.  As he was oft at sea and had nae house of his own in his father’s village, we lived with my father and mother in Rhugarbh along the shores of Loch Creran.

We did join the MacIains and move to Glencoe some years ago when my husband did fear my daughter and I would be harmed in the fighting of the Campbells near my father’s home. We eventually moved northward to Glencoe when raids by the Campbells in the Loch Creran area became frequent.

Now I am a spinner and cook in the MacIain household.  I help the Chatelaine in the running of the kitchen and pantry.  I help the dyer with her dyepots in return for dyeing my wool.   I miss my beloved loch, but my new family has welcomed me warmly and I now call Glencoe home.

If you see me at faire, come by and introduce yourself.  We’ll compare our stories.


3/6/10 — I made some name changes above because of a mistake brought to my attention by a reader… my guild’s garb officer!  My name was formerly Magaidh Portews MacAlpine , but that name structure was wrong for the cultural conventions that we are trying to portray.  I also changed the spelling of my father’s name from William to Uilleam Porteous to show the Scots Gaelic.  (I haven’t navigated how to show the clan affiliation part of a name yet, so I left my father’s “last” name alone and I didn’t touch Beinn’s name because Husby hasn’t bought into this suggestion- yet.  Here is a helpful link if you are dealing with a Gaelic name and trying to make sense of how to make it work:  I wanted to show how we need to update, correct and add to our character background as we develop our information.  It’s been amazing how these articles have inspired all sorts of people to review how their guilds tick.  I appreciate the positive responses I’ve gotten about my “musings” and glad I’ve been helpful.  Thanks all!



  1. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this article…and I love that you are a wife. YAY for wives…the homemaker, the keeper of all.

    I have a few ideas to discuss with you …sonds like another “Cuppa” opportunity. 🙂


  2. Hmmmm. I’m really sorry we missed this this year. I’ve gotta talk my clan into this gig.

    • There’s still a mimifi this year for you to meet people. The first faire is Tartan Day at Ardenwood, but the better one for seeing us is Valhalla in Tahoe. You should check it out! Call me.

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