Wednesday, 6 April 2011

What was she thinking? Inside the head of a historical character

A common ‘truisim’ that historical novelists maintain is that, whatever the era, people still essentially love, hate, grieve, etc. in the same ways.  That’s true, of course, but the way we express those feelings, and even the way we think about things is regulated to an extent, I contend, by our culture.  These differences exist in our very own time – why else are we looking with respect and awe at the dignified behaviour of the Japanese people in the wake of such terrible disasters?  Closer to home (for me), having moved from London to the American South, I often encounter thought processes and assumptions that mystify me (and I’m sure I return the ‘compliment’).

In teaching early American literature, one thing I have to impress upon my students is that they have to try to get out of the habit of approaching works with a post-Romantic mind.  A simple example I give is our widespread use of the question, “How do you feel?”  Quite frankly, this continual focus on the self would not fly for seventeenth century Calvinists, who are community-, not individual- oriented.

So how do we reflect what our characters might be thinking, and is it OK to have that ‘rebel’ with modern sensibilities?

Spending time with your nose in the popular books of the day, as I suggested in a previous blog, is a good way to pick up the sensibilities of the period.  Diaries, letters and journals are a help, bearing in mind that people may still create personas for what were often seen as semi-public works.  Poetry has a wonderful way of capturing emotions and ideas in a nutshell.  If you work in an era where newspapers exist, you have a goldmine of opinion to gather.  You must first and foremost know your period, and then you’ll feel more confident about guessing what your character may or may not think.

Can you make your character a freethinker and still sound authentic?  Of course.  There have always been those who think outside the cultural box and are not afraid to hide it; there must also be countless others who think but do not dare to act.  But still, those thoughts come from within a particular culture. 

An example that comes to mind is a YA novel about the Salem witch trials that I recently reviewed.  Something about the young heroine just struck me as inauthentic – while I accepted the premise she was a rebel, I found it hard to swallow that she questioned absolutely everything about the world around her, from wearing stays to the existence of the devil.  When I did a little research on the author’s website, I found that she had been undergoing her own spiritual crisis.  Suddenly, my nagging doubts became crystal clear: the author had clearly transposed her own feelings onto her character, and, for me at least, it just did not fit.

So this, I think, is the key.  A character who has nothing in common with his culture is probably not authentic.  This is true even for the greatest rebels.  Thus an eighteenth century atheist would usually still call himself a Deist; Oscar Wilde spoke only in veiled terms of “the love that dared not speak its name” (a phrase he borrowed from his lover, by the way); George Elliot openly lived with George Henry Lewes, but she was a slave to nineteenth century notions of duty (and did of course marry her second partner).
In the next post, I’ll list some recommended secondary reading for getting inside the heads of your characters.  Suggestions welcome!


  1. Interesting post, Susan.
    I love reading the diaries I've bought written by Victorian women. They are so helpful for getting into the spirit of the times.

  2. I think you make a good point Susan. Our society does influence us whether one wants to admit it or not. I think being true to your audience and the character is a fine line to draw for historical novelists. How much authenticity is too much for modern sensibilities?

  3. How interesting Susan. There are quite a few historical romances that have kick ass heroines ignoring the mores and constraints of the society in which they live, unfortunately. I reviewed a book which had a strong Victorian heroine who made only small inroads into freeing herself from those constraints. It was believable enough for me to enjoy it. And Only To Deceive by Tasha Alexander.

  4. I made my hero the epitome of 17th Century man in his attitude and behaviour - and my critiquers hated him for his chauvinism, and his lack of emotion. I'll aim for a middle ground next time!

  5. Religion was important in the lives of those born in previous centuries. Governments were so much harsher, and money so much harder to come by. How we'd react such harsh lives would dictate how we thought about things, don't you think? So maybe our easier lives only mask our real feelings? Maybe I'm not explaining my self very well!

  6. Rebels. Yes, they do exist. My favourite medieval author, Wolfram von Eschenbach, was way out of step with his contemporaries when it came to the themes of his romances (the brotherhood of man, no matter what race or religion). But look how he fit those ideas into story lines that are so typically 12th century! He didn't break out of the box, just bent its sides a little.

    While getting into a character's head is essential, I think Anita makes a good point. As authors of historicals, these days we're treading a thin line between authenticity and political correctness. We're also stuck with what readers believe to be correct for a period, whether or not it actually is accurate. Having said that though, I think we still have some wiggle room to create the kind of characters our readers today crave while maintaining some level of authenticity.

    + Male characters can start out as domineering, cold, unfeeling, insensensitive, etc., and through their interaction with the heroine (if its a romance) or the things that happen to them, change.
    + By the way, the cold, unfeeling stuff doesn't start until the Victorian Era. Men before that were allowed to show their emotions. But most men are still boys, even as adults, and let's face it, boys are callous. The sensitive male that today's romance reader responds to is a figment of her imagination, for the most part (and yes, they do exist, but not as extensively as we'd like.)
    + There are rebels in every society -- or those whose thinking is more advanced. But they also still carry with them a pile of baggage from their own time period. They're usually only out-of-synch in one aspect of their lives.
    + When people's thinking goes against social norms, they have to pay the cost. This includes self-doubts. (Which can add to the black moment.)

    We read historicals not to be transported to some alien realm, but rather to find in the experiences of others in the past validation of our own feelings and experiences. The trick for the historical author is finding the connection between the genuine experience of the past and the reader's experience today.

  7. Thank you for opening up the subject. I suppose we have to tread that fine line between authenticity and our own era's perception of a historical period - a thing you all do so well!