One of my BIGGEST pet peeves in reading historical fiction, especially works that are not historical novels (if you’d like to read about that click here), are characters who are basically 21st century people put into the past.
I understand that in some sense historical fiction, like all modern writing, is a reflection of the time. That’s where the genre neo-Victorian comes in—in layman terms a reworking of the Victorian era as a reflection of modern times and a greater understanding of the era. To learn more click here. However, I do not like when authors sugarcoat history or make their characters all too modern. Of course one can never be 100% historically accurate. In my own writing, my characters are definitely more modern than their historical counterparts.
Yet, they follow the social protocols of the time (at least in public), they wear the proper clothing, and I don’t sugarcoat the true atrocities of history. I LOVE history, but you cannot truly understand it without understanding that we’re lucky to be in the time we are in today. Hello, women rights? No legal slavery. Vaccines. Running water. Contact lenses. Freedom of religion. Need I say more?
Ten items to be aware of when writing historically accurate characters:
- The speech of the time. It’s always best to look things up, because you truly never know. For example, “Wow,” is from the 16th century, whereas “Smog” is from the early 20th
- Appropriate past times? Wealthy men fenced, whereas wealthy women painted. In the lower classes, there were less stringent categories. Every society and time will have different protocols.
- How could the different sexes mingle? In the upper crust in Victorian England, a man could not speak with a woman unless he had been introduced. In the lower classes, again, this was less strict.
- What were the different levels of society? How did they mingle? A person of the lower class, especially in Europe, would not interact with someone of the upper class as their equal. In the United States, a person could work their way up to the upper class, thus creating less strict class systems. In addition, how were different races treated?
- How were men expected to act? In the past, much of society was patriarchal. Men often had the roles of leader of the household, etc. As a side note, how were people who were non-cis-gendered treated.
- How were women expected to act? Women, were considered the weaker sex and were often treated like lesser beings. Yet, remember, this does not mean you need to create a female character who is a doormat. Neither do you have to create a “masculine” female character. Women can be strong without exhibiting “masculine” traits, past times, or clothing. Even modern female characters fall to this perception—it’s ok to like “feminine” things and still be strong, brave, powerful, and the like.
- How did adults act? How did children act? Sadly, for much of history, children were not allowed the childhoods we’re allowed today. How children were treated in the early 1800s and late 1800s were drastically different, so do your research.
- Jobs/Duties of each level of society/gender/age? Child labor existed well into the 20th Women didn’t create an influx into the working world until after World War I. Men were fashion designers, before women were allowed to be. PET PEEVE: The nice white slave owner, ick.
- Religion, often dictated every level of society. In a later post, I will cover why I think it is important to have a fundamental understanding of Christian history to understand both world and Western history.
- Don’t be afraid to reinterpret history, but always be aware that a too modern character does nothing to reflect upon the past nor does it gain a greater understanding. If your characters are racist, sexist, etc., it’s not a reflection of you. Characters do not equal their authors’ viewpoints. A stronger historical story represents the good and the bad.
Thank you for reading this episode of…
What are your pet peeves? Let me know below in the comments.