So, you want to write a book set in any historical time period of your choosing. And your main character is a really cool knight who sets out to save the world, or a Victorian era medium who can see ghosts. Whoever your protagonist may be, they are someone within a world very different than ours. And we as writers need to remember that people long ago may not have had the same troubles we do. They were very different people. So, here are some dos and don’ts about writing from a historical character’s perspective.
1. Words, Words, Words
This seems like the most obvious no-no, and the thing that is overlooked most often. In every eras, certain words mean certain things. There is slang. If we went back to just thirty years ago, no one would know what Twitter, Facebook, or probably even Myspace (yes, I’m old) was. So imagine if you are writing a story set in the Victorian era, over a hundred years ago, or—more drastically—a medieval tale or novel set in Ancient Rome. People would have talked very differently.
In researching for a historical novel, do not just read a bunch of history books about the era. The problem with this is: they were written by people in a more modern era. One might say they were often translated to be understandable to a current reader. And I am not saying there is not incredible value in writing such history books. However, there is also something missing: understanding how people spoke and thought.
One technique to solve this issue is going back to the source material. By this, I mean reading the classics. If your book is set in the sixteenth century, read some Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Dante to get an understanding of what people thought about at that time.
Now, this technique could be difficult if your book is set during an ancient eras. For Ancient Rome you might read the Bible—I know, controversial, but the New Testament is set around the Roman empire— or Plato (or other philosophers at that time), but say you are writing about Ancient Egypt. We hardly can translate the language, much less know how people thought at the time. Right?
Wrong! This is where connecting the dots comes in play, and that is where your reason and imagination comes in. For example, we know the Egyptians believed in the afterlife and were highly superstitious. Because of that and other things we know, we can concur many of the beliefs about the people.
2. Too Perfect
Historical TV shows are far worse culprits at this taboo than writers, but there are still books which have this issue (especially young adult books). That is, making characters beautiful in modern standards. Authors seem to often forget that historical people were not as hygienic as in modern day, nor did they have the some beauty standards.
For example, it was a sign of wealth in the 18th century to have black teeth, because it meant a person had eaten a lot of sugar and only the wealthy could afford sugar. But I do not see any Marie Antoinette-era romance stating the dashing male love interest has black teeth.
This is one of the biggest pet peeves I have about modern books set long ago. Characters are judged by modern beauty standards. People do not have gout, yellow teeth, or lack of hygiene. This is something I wish more authors paid attention to when writing.
When I speak about this, I do not mean to emphasize this aspect of history so much that it seems ridiculous. But do not ignore it as well. Horrid beauty standards were part of the world in history. So, the next time you think it’s good to have Marie Antoinette see a white-teethed hunk and admire his beauty, cut it out!
This is something that is very controversial in our time and I feel many female authors struggle with this since we live in an era where women have so many more rights than we did even a hundred years ago. However, we still expect women long ago to have the same views of the world as we do today. That is so not true.
I find many historical books portray women as being independent, rebellious, and intelligent. Now, let me say there is nothing wrong with any of these traits, but this does not describe most women who lived long ago. Most were extremely hardworking, they did not have time to rebel or be independent. It would make sense if the girl came from a wealthy, eccentric family where her father gave her the opportunity to be educated and have an opinion. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense.
Say you have a female character who is a slave (whether it be in Ancient Rome or anywhere else) and has always been a slave. It would not make sense for her to always stand up to her masters because, frankly, no master would keep a rebellious slave. Either she would end up dead before the story even starts, or she would have learned to curb her tongue at a very young age.
So, when writing a historical female protagonist, think about how she might be considering her situation. She might be intelligent, but have learned to keep silent. Think about what women would be like in a realistic situation.
And, while we are on the topic, do not think men had it much better than women. They may have had more freedoms, but unless they were wealthy they had to do what it took to survive as well. Even wealthy men had to be careful: about their reputation and their standing in society, business, and politics. You could not have a wealthy noble speaking out in public against a king unless he had a death wish or was imprisoned shortly afterwards.
So, in conclusion, my simplest advice is to understand the era you are writing in, inside and out. Understand the characters. See complexities in societies different than our own. Just because the female slave learned to be quiet does not mean she is not intelligent and independent. Work the type of character you want into the situation, changing and forming them like clay to create characters that are relatable to a modern audience and yet as if plucked out of an era different than ours.
What are your biggest complaints when reading about historical characters? What are some of your favorite historical fiction books? And, as always…
Best wishes on your adventures in life,