Wednesday, September 12, 2012


I'm reading a book right now that is well researched and has an engaging main character and a great voice. It's historical, but has a very immediate feeling to it (which is what makes people like or dislike historical novels, I suspect--ie how immediate it feels). There is one aspect, though, that keeps pulling me out of the story. And that's social anachronism.

Okay, yes, you can make your character any way you want to--as long as they're believable as a person. So if one of your characters is a really well educated peasant in the 15th century, or is a person who doesn't believe in marriage in Austen's time, or any number of other non-social-norm situations, well, you'd better have a pretty good reason for that character to be that way. I see a lot of authors who do try to back up their reasoning here. But where things seem to break down is when they want to insert that quirky character into the greater historical world, and everyone's suddenly okay with the modern attitudes and actions they bring along. I am not saying that people did not do some of these things way back when. What I am saying is that they were not considered okay/normal/unsurprising. So for your world at large to have no reaction, for your characters to have no consequences, for everything to breezily move along as if part of the modern world were dropped right into the past with no jarring whatsoever, is not believable.

What? You say I have to write about repressed people? Well, some people were repressed, but I'm guessing just as many people didn't feel that way at all. They had different goals than some of us do, and they felt fulfilled and powerful when they met those goals. And assuming that everyone was repressed for forced into all acting the same is a bit simplistic of a view, anyway. People were varied "back then." Not all people married the person they were in love with, or followed the rules they were supposed to. True. But there were consequences and reactions back then for things that don't raise any eyebrows today. You can write a strong character in a historical context, but to be accurate, you're going to have to understand more than just names and dates when when the zipper was invented. You're going to have to understand the kinds of choices a strong female character would have made in 1940 as opposed to 2012. You're going to have to understand things like faith in more than an atheistic, check-off-that-character-trait way if your MC is going to be a nun. You're going to have to figure out how to make a character feel strong by 21st century reader standards, while at the same time letting them be strong in their own historical context. Which may mean leaving behind some of your own 21st centuryness when you go into that world yourself.

(No, I don't think this is easy! But it's rather rewarding to read when it's done right, don't you think?)