Most authors of historical fiction hope to accurately represent the time in which their story is set, and most readers of historical fiction hope the author has achieved this. As a writer, having one of your characters eat potatoes in 13th century France or check their watch in the Dark Ages would be a terrible blooper. But what about your character’s thoughts and attitudes? It can be difficult for modern people to grasp the major differences in the inner lives of their earlier ancestors compared to the those prevalent now, and even harder for them to understand and accept these.
This presents a challenge for the historical fiction author. Do you endow your characters with modern thoughts and attitudes, or do you attempt to be faithful to historical fact, and give them an inner life typical of their time and situation? If your story is set in Europe during the medieval period, that means a typical person would have been a devout Christian. In many places, it was not optional. Attending church could be a legal requirement, and being a follower of any belief system outside of the dominant religion (in most places Catholicism) put you at serious risk of being accused of heresy or witchcraft. The punishment for being convicted of that was often being burnt alive in a public place. With such terrible punishments inflicted on anyone who did not appear to be faithful to the official religion, it is hardly surprising that very few people dissented.
I have read quite a few historical novels written by contemporary authors where the main protagonist has very modern attitudes to morality, religion and the natural order. These authors will often have their main protagonist only attending church out of necessity rather than conviction, and otherwise paying very little attention to religious practices and doctrine. In one book set in early medieval Wales, the heroine was mentally doing her shopping list during Mass! It was indeed the case that some medieval people paid little attention to religion and piety, but to do so then was not the same as doing that now. Being an atheist was very rare in medieval times, and would have been viewed as a terrible thing by much of society. I think a modern equivalent to how a medieval person might see an atheist would be an anti-Semitic Neo-Nazi, or perhaps a paedophile. In modern Western society, these people are generally seen as dangerous, misguided and evil, which is how heretics tended to be regarded in medieval Europe.
Having a character who is not very devout is acceptable for the writer aiming for historical accuracy. But it is important to bear in mind that this would have generally been seen as laxity rather than a legitimate choice, somewhat like a smoker tends to be viewed today. Smoking is widely accepted as being bad for one’s health, and people who still light up regardless probably don’t reject modern science and the prevalent view that smoking is bad for you. It is more likely the case that smokers don’t have the will-power to stop, enjoy smoking too much, don’t accept that these bad consequences will befall them, or simply don’t care if they get cancer.
Having said this, I do think that fundamentally, we are modern writers writing stories for modern people, and regardless of whether we set our book in the past, the present or the future, we are writing about us. And ‘us’ is modern people, as we are now, in the twenty-first century. In order to write a story that modern people will enjoy and get something out of, we, as writers, have to write about those things that concern modern people, in a way which resonates with them. This does not mean throwing aside historical accuracy, but it does mean considering the modern reader.
When I wrote my medieval mystery The Heart of Darkness, one of the aspects that I put quite a lot of thought into was the inner attitudes of Sir Richard, who is the heroine’s love interest and partner in investigating the crimes. I wanted to write a book that would have general appeal and not feel like it was pushing any one viewpoint, but at the same time did reflect the views and beliefs of medieval people. Sir Richard is not a philosopher or deep thinker, so for him to have beliefs that are highly original or unusual would be out of character. People like that tend to accept the ideas and beliefs predominant in their society, so Sir Richard had to be a Catholic. He also is someone from an upper-class family with a warrior tradition. Medieval men of this situation had a strong culture based on honour and shame. Your reputation as a fearless and honourable man was highly valued, and Sir Richard takes this very seriously.
But Sir Richard is, when we first meet him, a man who can be cruel, violent, selfish and ruthless. Having a rather fatalistic attitude too, he has resigned himself to the fact that (in his view) he has already earned himself a one-way ticket to hell. I think that the gods people believe can sometimes reflect their own traits, and this is the case with Sir Richard. His god is a vengeful and unforgiving god, whereas Rowena’s god is loving and benevolent. Sir Richard’s a brave and tough man, but one who has grown rather hard and unyielding, and has more than a little pride about him. Because of this, it naturally followed that he would not be one for begging and grovelling before his god. For him, it is actions that matter, not intentions. In medieval Europe, it was common for people to believe they could essentially ‘buy’ their way into heaven and God’s favour through donating money to good works or the church, by doing penances, by having prayers and masses said for their soul, and by visiting holy sites as pilgrims (the holiest sites of pilgrimage officially absolved the sins of all pilgrims who visited them).
To me, it seemed right that Sir Richard would scorn such methods as being for fools and cowards. His god is hard but fair. In the end, it is love that redeems Sir Richard. Rowena has the courage to enter his sometimes dark and dangerous world and get to know him. In so doing, she comes to love the good and noble parts of him. And his reciprocal love and loyalty causes him to strive upwards in order to come closer to the woman he loves, and in doing so he brings his inner darkness up into the light.
It is common writing advice to list your main characters’ physical features, build, likes and dislikes, history and personality traits. But I think that going deeper and thinking about their beliefs, attitudes and philosophy on life is worth the extra effort. Real people are concerned with guilt, redemption, sin, evil, the meaning of life, the place of people in society, spirituality, and so should your characters. If you do not, you are likely to end up manoeuvring the same sort of empty physical shells through your story that populate so many others.
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