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Giving Characters Realistic Emotions And Beliefs In Historical Novels, by Anne Perry

What shocks you?  In Puritan England you could have been seriously punished for blasphemy.  You still can in some places, but not most.  I have heard obscene and blasphemous language in the mouths of kindergarten children.  It is difficult to avoid it.  I am sad and offended, but I am not shocked.

What does get under my skin?  What can be punished in law?  Racist, sexist, and nationalist abuse – and also religious abuse, on occasion.  Yet it used to be common to label people and discriminate against them, even assault them, persecute them, or, in some religious cases, burn them.  Now such things are criminal offences that come under the term ‘hate crimes’ and are especially heavily punished.  That would have been unthinkable in most historical times.  In some people this behaviour would never have occurred anyway.

We must deal with the expectations and prejudices according to the time and place, of the story.  That can be extraordinarily difficult because their values may be deeply offensive to us now, and therefore very probably offensive to many of our readers.  The last thing we want to do is alienate people.  Disturb them a little or make them think, by all means.  That is not the same thing as making them so offended that they close the book and put it away.

Most of us say we believe in equality.  Some of us really do, but we all have our emotional baggage of one sort or another.  Most of us keep our political beliefs all our lives.  Very few actually read political platforms and change our vote according to circumstances and manifestos but beliefs about what is good, or possible, change from one age and country to another.

People now generally take it as a human right that all sane and free adults should have a vote.  It is not so long since black people did not.  I don’t know – did they pay taxes?  It is not yet a hundred years since women got the right to vote in most countries.  Not all women, of course, but then not all men had either.  It would be uncommon for a mid-Victorian woman to campaign for her right to vote.  It was beyond the horizon.  If she wanted some rights it would more possibly be for married women to be able to own property.  I don’t mean real estate, I mean their own clothes, their jewellery and, if they worked, their earnings.  It was the 1860s before that happened.  Before then even your underwear was not yours, everything belonged to your husband.  Very few people thought that unfair.

Changes over time are not strictly progressive.  Under Irish (Brecon) law – in roughly the 7th to 8th Century AD, a woman was allowed to do anything she was able to do – such as being a soldier, bishop, lawyer, judge, physician, etc.  The thing is to be realistic to the time, or if ahead, then only by a step or two.  If your character is ahead of their time, there may be a high price to pay for it.  More than a few people had been burned, hanged or otherwise put to death very nastily.  The majority do not like having their ideas upset.  That is definitely a fear for many people:  ‘Don’t threaten my view of myself and how I fit into my world!’ or ‘Don’t make me question my beliefs about the order of the universe!’

People are always going to be afraid of war, death, disease, famine, etc.  Many people are afraid of loneliness, of pain, of failure, of guilt, of not being loved or accepted, or not belonging, and that in the end that we face extinction and nothingness.  Such beliefs have no time or place but unite us all.  The hope of redemption, however we see it, and of belonging unite us all.  A good story will show that.


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Writing Historical Novels

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Slavery was almost universal in civilized lands of ancient times and was almost never questioned. Nevertheless, I think that a writer can have a character who questions it. In The Death of Carthage, my character Ectorius detests slavery so much that he frees the slaves he was allotted as booty in the third Macedonian war. Why? Because Ectorius was born a slave. I do make it clear, however, that his was definitely not the prevailing view: “Whenever I hold forth on the subject I’m met with incredulous looks and glassy-eyed stares, so I generally only do that when I’ve had more wine than I should.”

    May 21, 2013

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