Saturday, December 17, 2016

Characters with Anachronistic Mindsets: Do They Have a Place in Fiction?

Parental warning:  I speak frankly about romance novels below.

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I always get nervous when I see book blurbs like this: "A 14th-century story told with a 20th-century sensibility.” 

Ugh.  I hate that!  By and large, people of the 14th century did not have the sensibility of people living in the 20th century.  Please don't give it to them!

Whether my perception is accurate or not, the above statement screams to me: "The heroine in this book will be an anachronistically modern-thinking woman, and the villains will be portrayed as period-stereotyped chauvinistic assholes!"  Granted, this is my knee-jerk reaction, and it will have to be tempered by me actually buying and reading the book in question.  I simply saw the blurb today and groaned.

The reason I am having this knee-jerk reaction is that it is, sadly, so often shown in books when the author and publisher want to make a point and care more about that than about maintaining historical accuracy and entertaining readers.  You often see this in Hollywood movies, too.  That type of movie often fails because audiences don't want to feel that they are paying to be preached to.

I fervently hope that none of the red flags popping up in my mind will be true for the above novel.  I believe that, if you're going to write a historical novel, you should be very well versed in the attitudes of the day and understanding of them, at least for the length of the book.  Yes, it is quite possible that at least a few people back in the 14th century held to more progressive beliefs than the norm.  If they had not, we would not have had the Protestant Reformation, for example.  But whether the Church was Catholic or Protestant, 14th century attitudes about morality, particularly female morality, were anything but those of the 20th century.  The same is true of ecological concerns and attitudes toward people of certain ethnicities or sexual orientations.  I hope the author of the above book kept that in mind.

I also wonder if some of my objection to finding characters with anachronistic mindsets stems from the fact that I read science fiction, in which it is not uncommon to read something from the point of view of an alien.  The more alien such a character's thought process is, the more interesting.  Frankly, exploring the point of view of a character from an earlier time period is quite similar to looking at the mind of someone who is sort of alien.   If the aliens in SF novels thought exactly the way we do, there would be little point in making them aliens, right?

All of that said, there are times when I have enjoyed slightly anachronistic character attitudes in books.  Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael novels, for instance, always intrigued me with the way Brother Cadfael would figure out ways using the technology and logic available in his time to do things that we know to do in the 21st century to find out who committed a murder.  

In the romance genre, author Eloisa James regularly deals with topics which used to be taboo in the industry when I was a teenager--but I like that she acknowledges them and has her characters deal with them--painful intercourse, oral sex, homosexuality, and so forth.  These are issues that modern people deal with, too, and it is refreshing to see that her heroines tend to be equal partners in their lovemaking.  Unfortunately, ignorance of sex, particularly among well-bred Victorian girls, was something that too many of them did experience before marriage, and I think that is tragic. 

I believe a definite and subtle balancing act is required between writing characters whom readers can relate to and making them mostly accurate examples of their time and culture.  Would most of us want to read a story about a Regency or Victorian-era girl who truly is ignorant of what goes on in a bedroom and who believes all manner of bizarre and period rumors and superstitions she's been told, or would we want to toss the book away in disgust because we can't believe any girl of eighteen could be that ignorant?  It's an interesting question to me.


  1. Historical writing does walk a fine line. Thank you for pointing this out. And yes, some historical attitudes if clung to faithfully would probably turn off readers, either do to the racism or other social attitudes of the time.

    1. Blogger posted me as unknown, and it seems to have grabbed the bio of one of my facebook friends rather than my own. Very annoying.

    2. Exactly. If I were writing a historical romance novel set in the antebellum South, I would feel very uncomfortable by how I would have to portray characters' attitudes, to be accurate to the period.

      If I were to write such a book, I would probably do it by having the characters be completely oblivious to their own prejudices and accepting them as the unquestioned norm, rather than having them be overtly abusive. Then I would have to decide if I would have someone point their prejudices out to them or not. And probably, quite a few readers simply wouldn't buy the book if it showed the social issues but contained no confrontation of them at all. I notice that what most Regency romance novels do is to not even address the social issue. Rare is the Regency romance novel in which I have seen a ton household containing a slave character. The idea there is probably that discussing social issues would interfere with the romance plotline--though I have seen some good authors incorporate such issues into the story, to make the romance novel meatier.