Character Pitfalls of Historical Fiction


Historical fiction always serves the didactic purposes of the present.

Parallel periods comment on today in the sneaky revealing light of yesterday:

Mexican-American War = Iraq-American War

or Classical parallels used earlier:

Imperial Rome = British Empire; Persian Empire = France
Periclean Athens = Britain or France; Sparta = Prussia
Periclean Athens = France; Persian Empire = British Empire (French writers, of course).

Writers explain or glorify the present, or amend past indignities, via histfi. Sir Walter Scott single-handedly rehabilitated and glamorized the Scottish, despised by the earlier Georgian English as uncouth demi-barbarians.

Think of racist images recently over-painted by more realistic or positive characters, whether protagonists or secondaries. This can go too far, into anachronism, as when the Noble Savage is revised into a culture missing notable unpleasant aspects it actually had in order to make it fit what today considers ideal or acceptable.

Distorting the main characters or their culture with the bias and behaviors of today can make histfi extremely dated in a few years. You can pretty instantly spot bad histfi or bad historical fantasy when you pick it up and go, “This sounds like people out of the 1950s!” or whatever date turns out to be when it was written, or the author’s attitudes formed. People can write their historical worlds as a way to revive that of their youth: that is, they re-create the 1970s in the guise of the 1670s, or the 1980s as the 1850s.

We call this syndrome “your friends in funny clothes” (YFIFC): the Good Guys all know in their hearts that they should be thinking like us, and they do, while only Bad Guys have authentic politically-incorrect attitudes of the time. This often sets up straw-man obstacles for the protagonist to oppose righteously, like slavery, racism, religious bigotry, and other dead horses flogged for 100,000 words — fake because little things like economic realities or actual laws never stop them from freeing all their serfs without the okay of their feudal liege, or giving their wives property when married women could own not even the clothes on their backs. They’re preaching to the choir, anyway, because we already (well, most of us) decided decades ago that these were bad things.

As a challenge, as an author of historical fiction, try to show us why otherwise sympathetic people could or had to accept these things because of the world around them.

You may identify too closely with your main characters, love them too well, to have them behave and believe like all those wrong-headed jerks back then. Maybe you should try making them time-travellers instead, or setting this in another world rather than another time.

You won’t get it wrong if you really get into your period. Those traipsing too lightly through the past are at risk. They believe “People of other times were pretty much like us.” This simplicity saves them the travail of having to think like a different culture or learning to converse in Standard or past English, since these writers inevitably “translate” all dialogue into TV English, full of modern slang and jargon — and modern concepts. ‘Twas the one who didst so whilst putting forsoothly stuff into the narrative who completely baffled me.

2 responses »

  1. LOL! Very well said.

    I discovered something while researching my historical novels: being faithful to history is a lot better in so many ways:

    1. If you do your homework you actually learn something, which is always a plus 😉
    2. Your story automatically becomes more original, because when you write ideas that everybody are using (read this as ‘politically correct’) you are… well, writing what everybody else’s writing.
    3. Building the story you want to tell around the actual historical environment forces you to think outside the box. If you want your plot to unfold a certain way (because of characters’ arc) but you find a historical roadblock, you have to come up with an idea that will save the story AND the setting. This is my favourite part of writing historical 🙂

    So I really don’t see why writers would go the easy way “People in the past were basically just like us” when there is so much richness in authenticity.

  2. Thank you.

    What you say in #2 is so right. The characters become original, you find a plot line or devices that no one else has used, and it just quits being a tired old rehashed pseudo-historical chestnut.

    Obviously, you enjoy the challenge of historical fiction. Frankly, all fiction writing has a lot more in common with mountain-climbing than with sun-bathing: it’s about the excitement and demand of the challenge.

    But you’ve seen them saying at NaNoWriMo forums: “I want to write a Civil War story, but I don’t know much about it. Can you give me a couple of sites to go to where I can learn enough to write it?” (50 Books, folks, not 3 Sites) ( I’ve also read plenty where they did all those anachronistic things I mention, and I didn’t even include the one with Irish pagan pirates worshiping Norse gods and wearing horned helmets, attacking English settlements during the Crusades (don’t ask which Crusade: the author obviously thought they happened several times every lifetime during some vague Middle Ages time).

    Me, I love how research will hand me half my story. All that “sand for pearls” hides in primary sources. I’m always revising my ideas while I research, to embed the story more in the time and place. I found the first leaping-horse carousel hiding in London in 1803, the text of the sermon of thanksgiving rendered by the chaplain on the conquest of Mexico City in 1847, and the details of an 1885 scheme to connect London and Paris, for the delivery of mail and small parcels, by a pneumatic tube that went under the Channel. The last sounds like the leaping-off point for a steampunk novel in itself.

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