Writing Historical Fiction: Modern vs. Exceptional

currently playing on my iPod: D.A.N.C.E. by Justice

When you write a scene set in the past you must take care that your characters (either fictional or historical)  live, love, work, and play in an authentic manner. Why is this important? Well, for one reason, you need to submerge your reader into your historical setting. If your Civil War soldier says “Holla!” to a group of fellow soldiers, your readers might just stop and say, “Um…what now?” Or perhaps, in your medieval novel, the lowly page suddenly gives some lip to the constable of the castle. Unless said page worries aggressively about his impending doom, the action in the novel is just not authentic.

To avoid false actions in characters, you must research your time period at length. Become comfortable with the religion, societal norms, class structure, governing body, and so forth.

But what about exceptional behavior? After all, readers tend to pick up books about people who do not act like the people around them. Readers enjoy people/characters that break the norm. Pope Joan, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth Bennett, Peter Blood, Katniss Everdeen are all examples of characters who acted very differently from what was expected of them within their cultures. I could write an entire entry on E. Bennett but I’ll save that for another time.

So why are these characters’ actions believable?

Well, some are believable because they actually existed and actually did the things in the books about them. Truth is believable.

The fictional characters’ actions are believable because before, during, and after their strange behaviors they think about the problems associated with such actions. They (or oftentimes the characters around them) make comment on the oddity of their ways. Punishments ensue. Relationships stretch. The basic point is this: if your historical fiction characters find it necessary to act in ways unlike their peers, you must address this divergence within the story. Also, you must keep divergent behavior to a minimum so that your story remains believable.

Now just to be fair I must admit, I have a strong preference for craziness. Something wildly unexpected in the storyline. I suspect many share this desire as may be seen in the current popularity of paranormal novels and the like. So have fun in your writing, but strive for authenticity. Make it feel real. Hopefully, your readers will become a believer in you.

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