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!