When Is a Character Too Modern? by Priscilla Royal

Posted by on Dec 30, 2013 in Featured Book, Historical Research, Medieval Great Britain | 7 comments

As historical novelists, we all must create characters who are recognizable to readers and yet remain true to their own times.

To be fair, there is no way we can completely shed our 20th/21st century selves. We are formed so profoundly by our world that even those of us who feel a deep affinity with another era cannot totally escape the one we were born into. That noted, however, we are obliged by the expectations of historical fiction readers not to redress modern people into period costume and call it historical.

Research into our chosen era is crucial. We need to understand how and why people thought the way they did. Some of that may feel so illogical or strange to us that we know readers will find it hard to sympathize with the characters we portray as positive. How to get around this? My answer is to remember the wisdom of my favorite grump, Ecclesiastes, who so famously wrote that there is no new thing under the sun.

In any modern period, people are inclined to believe that their era is wisest, full of fresh ideas, and better than any other. In fact, democracy in some form was present in Athens and even medieval monasteries. The confederation of the original twelve tribes of Israel, albeit under a king, resembles the beginning of the United States with the thirteen colonies. Are there differences? Yes, but there is a resonance.

The more original sources from the medieval era I read, the more I am struck by similarities between that era and many others, including this one. Western Europe may have been predominantly Christian, but it was also influenced by Islam in medicine, mathematics, language, and even spices. There were non-believers, gay people, powerful women, and Jews who were respected and accepted. The trap for historical fiction writers in recognizing this is giving their characters modern perceptions and rationales for the deviances from the conventional attitudes, also known as the era’s party line. What we cannot do is use our frame of reference and logic to present a point of view that proves the universality of human thought. What we must do is find the rationale our characters would have used in their time. For Sanctity of Hate, I found a letter by Pope Gregory X and a speech by Bernard of Clairvaux which argued that violence against the Jews was against the will of God. The rationale was not based in an understanding of the absurdity of anti-Semitism. It was based in the belief that the end of the world could not come if the Jews were killed.

So the answer to the problem lies in knowing how complex your chosen historical era was, recognizing the universality of human nature, and understanding the way in which your characters can rationalize their actions within some aspect of the logic from their time.

Priscilla Royal, December 30, 2013. Her latest book in her medieval mystery series is Covenant with Hell.

7 Comments

  1. Terrific article, Priscilla, thank you. Indeed, it’s a big challenge to faithfully portray a worldview and perspective that is essentially alien to our readers, and yet not alienate those readers in the process. Not only must we leave our native, modern, prejudices and assumptions at home, we must ask our readers to do the same.

    The most skilled authors of historical fiction, I believe, are those who faithfully immerse themselves in that “foreign country” of the past, and find and convey to us that common human experience by which we can relate.

    SRW

    • Thank you, Stephen. The past is A foreign country, but, like international travel, the journey is a lot of fun and we are made better by it.

  2. Interesting post, Priscilla. I find that the farther we travel back, the more we encounter world views that are so foreign they would never occur to us. Thus the pressing need for research. Though my work is only three centuries in the past, I sometimes have to research the research to get the gist.

    • Excellent point, Beverle! I often find one original source contradicting another.

  3. Well presented & something for all writers of historical fiction to keep in mind. Thanks for the fine examples, too.

  4. Well said. One thing people often forget is that we’re all individuals, and even in other times, opinions varied. Not everyone believed everything we’re told about a certain era, just like not everyone today believes the same things. We’re told, “They believed mandrake root screamed when it was pulled from the ground” but somebody pulled it, and that somebody had to know it didn’t make a sound.
    In a century or two, students looking back at us will be told, “They tattooed their bodies and went clubbing without underwear.” Hmmm.

    • I do like your example, Peg. As an interesting sidenote, I heard someone on the radio say that the youth of today will have no concept of privacy with all the social media. They didn’t in the medieval era either to the extent we know it. What goes around, comes around? Another reason to study history?