• strict warning: Declaration of FeedsImporter::copy() should be compatible with FeedsConfigurable::copy(FeedsConfigurable $configurable) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/feeds/includes/FeedsImporter.inc on line 94.
  • strict warning: Declaration of FeedsNodeProcessor::map() should be compatible with FeedsProcessor::map($source_item, $target_item = NULL) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/feeds/plugins/FeedsNodeProcessor.inc on line 319.
  • strict warning: Declaration of FeedsNodeProcessor::setTargetElement() should be compatible with FeedsProcessor::setTargetElement(&$target_item, $target_element, $value) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/feeds/plugins/FeedsNodeProcessor.inc on line 319.
  • strict warning: Declaration of FeedsFeedNodeProcessor::map() should be compatible with FeedsProcessor::map($source_item, $target_item = NULL) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/feeds/plugins/FeedsFeedNodeProcessor.inc on line 227.
  • strict warning: Declaration of FeedsFeedNodeProcessor::setTargetElement() should be compatible with FeedsProcessor::setTargetElement(&$target_item, $target_element, $value) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/feeds/plugins/FeedsFeedNodeProcessor.inc on line 227.
  • strict warning: Declaration of FeedsUserProcessor::map() should be compatible with FeedsProcessor::map($source_item, $target_item = NULL) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/feeds/plugins/FeedsUserProcessor.inc on line 195.
  • warning: preg_replace(): Compilation failed: disallowed Unicode code point (>= 0xd800 && <= 0xdfff) at offset 1809 in /home/writezil/public_html/modules/search/search.module on line 334.
  • warning: preg_replace(): Compilation failed: disallowed Unicode code point (>= 0xd800 && <= 0xdfff) at offset 1809 in /home/writezil/public_html/modules/search/search.module on line 334.
  • warning: preg_replace(): Compilation failed: disallowed Unicode code point (>= 0xd800 && <= 0xdfff) at offset 1809 in /home/writezil/public_html/modules/search/search.module on line 334.
  • warning: preg_replace(): Compilation failed: disallowed Unicode code point (>= 0xd800 && <= 0xdfff) at offset 1809 in /home/writezil/public_html/modules/search/search.module on line 334.
  • warning: preg_replace(): Compilation failed: disallowed Unicode code point (>= 0xd800 && <= 0xdfff) at offset 1809 in /home/writezil/public_html/modules/search/search.module on line 334.
  • warning: preg_replace(): Compilation failed: disallowed Unicode code point (>= 0xd800 && <= 0xdfff) at offset 1809 in /home/writezil/public_html/modules/search/search.module on line 334.
  • You must include at least one positive keyword with 3 characters or more.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 843.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_display::options_validate() should be compatible with views_plugin::options_validate(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_display.inc on line 1877.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_display_block::options_submit() should be compatible with views_plugin_display::options_submit(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_display_block.inc on line 193.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_field_broken::ui_name() should be compatible with views_handler::ui_name($short = false) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_field.inc on line 641.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_sort_broken::ui_name() should be compatible with views_handler::ui_name($short = false) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_sort.inc on line 82.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter::options_validate() should be compatible with views_handler::options_validate($form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter.inc on line 585.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter::options_submit() should be compatible with views_handler::options_submit($form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter.inc on line 585.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter_broken::ui_name() should be compatible with views_handler::ui_name($short = false) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter.inc on line 609.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_filter_boolean_operator::value_validate() should be compatible with views_handler_filter::value_validate($form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_filter_boolean_operator.inc on line 128.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_style_default::options() should be compatible with views_object::options() in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_style_default.inc on line 25.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_row::options_validate() should be compatible with views_plugin::options_validate(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_row.inc on line 135.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_plugin_row::options_submit() should be compatible with views_plugin::options_submit(&$form, &$form_state) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/plugins/views_plugin_row.inc on line 135.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 843.
  • strict warning: Declaration of content_handler_field::options() should be compatible with views_object::options() in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/cck/includes/views/handlers/content_handler_field.inc on line 208.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 843.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 843.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 843.
  • strict warning: Non-static method view::load() should not be called statically in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/views.module on line 843.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_argument::init() should be compatible with views_handler::init(&$view, $options) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_argument.inc on line 745.
  • strict warning: Declaration of views_handler_argument_broken::ui_name() should be compatible with views_handler::ui_name($short = false) in /home/writezil/public_html/sites/all/modules/views/handlers/views_handler_argument.inc on line 770.

Sympathetic Characters in Unsympathetic Worlds

http://writerunboxed.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/alexander-525x394.jpg 525w, http://writerunboxed.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/alexander-600x450.jpg 600w, http://writerunboxed.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/alexander.jpg 640w" sizes="(max-width: 501px) 100vw, 501px" />          A few years ago, I read Xenophon’s The Education of Cyrus. I’d heard that Thomas Jefferson admired Cyrus as a leader and wanted to find out why.  Before long, I came across this bit of advice Cyrus’ father gave him about resupplying his troops during wartime.
Where might you better look to find the means of obtaining supplies than to the one who has an army?  Now you are marching out from here with a force of infantry . . . and you will have for cavalry to support you the Median horse, the best cavalry troops in the world.  What nation, then, of those around do you suppose will refuse to serve you, both from the wish to do your side a favour, and for fear of suffering harm?
In other words, “If you need supplies, just take them.  And if people give you trouble, well, you’ve got an army, don’t you?”  Essentially, he would supply the troops using the same methods organized crime uses to shake down local businesses.  The rest of Cyrus’ life and reign is about as enlightened as his resupply methods.  Apparently what made him such a shining example of a benevolent ruler for both Xenophon and Jefferson was that he actually tried to govern the lands he conquered rather than simply raping and pillaging.
Last month we talked about how to write plausible characters who lived in a world with rigid class distinctions.  But a class system isn’t the only way past cultures go off the rails by modern standards.  How do you write about characters who lived in places and times that accepted and even glorified conquest as a normal part of politics?  Or that viewed marriage as a matter of political and economic dealmaking that had nothing to do with love?  Or that were comfortable with slavery – with the right to beat, rape, or kill people who belonged to you?  Or that considered bear baiting or a good hanging to be quality entertainment?
In last month’s comments section, a reader brought up the question of how to make characters in historical novels sympathetic when they were part of cultures that modern readers now find either ridiculous or abhorrent.  The example she gave was of a young woman in the Ming dynasty whose abusive father had arranged for her to marry a man she didn’t love.  In the culture at the time, not obeying her father would have been unthinkable – it would have violated everything she’d been raised to believe about her duty as a daughter and as a woman.  But if she gave in to her father’s wishes rather than following her heart, she’d lose the sympathy of modern readers.  How do you handle a situation like that?
The easiest way is to simply make your characters the exceptions to their times.  You can get away with this in minor matters, as long as you make your characters aware they’re breaking with the social norms. For instance, in C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake mysteries, about a lawyer in the time of Henry VIII, Matthew is put off by bear baiting – watching a caged bear torn apart by dogs.  But he feels that his distaste for the popular sport is a sign that he’s too sensitive.
But if you have your characters freely flaunt the more basic norms of their societies – things that can’t be passed off as a matter of taste — then you’re undermining the main reason for writing and reading historical fiction.  Fans of this genre read stories set in the past (or in a past-like fantasy world) to immerse themselves in a culture different from their own.  If the author of the Ming dynasty story had let her heroine abandon her arranged marriage, she would no longer be writing a story about the Ming dynasty.  She would have essentially been writing a modern story with the characters dressed up in beautiful silks and jade.
So how do you make a character sympathetic without having them break with a culture that’s decidedly unsympathetic?  The first step is to remember that people of the past weren’t stupid.  They certainly believed things we find incredible, but they often did so for plausible reasons, based on what they knew at the time.  So leave your modern presuppositions at the door and immerse yourself in the historical context.  Your character’s actions will then seem more sympathetic.  Cyrus’s attempts to rule the provinces he conquered really was a step up from rape and pillage, and most places the Romans took over wound up with better roads and clean water.  Conquest was, at times, a good thing.
I can see a nineteenth-century British colonial officer, for instance, plausibly accept what was then known as the White Man’s Burden.  By the end of the nineteenth century, anesthetics, germ theory, and improved hygiene were keeping people in Europe alive a lot longer.  Mechanized farming and new food storage methods were eliminating famine.  It’s not implausible that an intelligent, kind man might want to bring these blessings to places in the world where people still lived needlessly short, hard, hungry lives.
Remember that, within the limitations of past societies, people still found ways to be human.  Marriages were matters of commerce in the middle ages, but romantic love flourished in extramarital affairs – Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Isolde, just about anyone in Boccaccio’s Decameron.  Uncle Tom of Uncle Tom’s Cabin has come to represent African Americans who tolerate and enable bigotry.  But at the time Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the book, Tom’s meek submission to his cruel masters would have been seen as a noble embodiment of his Christian ideals.  It made him, in the eyes of Stowe’s readers, a better Christian than his oppressors, which was a radical concept at the time.
Even when your characters find ways to be human, they need to do so in ways that fit with their times.  Priscilla Royal’s Covenant with Hell features a nun — Prioress Eleanor — and a monk — Brother Thomas – as the detectives.  As you might expect for two members of religious orders in the mid-thirteenth century, Eleanor and Thomas are very concerned with the state of their souls.  At one point, Eleanor walks the final mile of a pilgrimage barefoot, cutting up her feet, then worries that she may have committed the sin of pride for being excessively humble.  When Thomas is treated with contempt by a priest, he feels he is being uncharitable in feeling insulted.
But within this very medieval worldview, they find a humanity that modern readers will still recognize.  They feel nothing but compassion for a starving street urchin who was raped near the altar of a shrine, for instance – the priest who insulted Thomas considers her a child of the devil for desecrating a holy site and refusing to repent.  And Thomas, who is homosexual, feels that his attraction to men is a sin, but not deeply enough to actually confess it.  At some deeper level, he feels he’s doing nothing wrong.
This is the main reason to do the work needed to project yourself into the heads of characters who believe things most of us find ridiculous or abhorrent.  If you can reach beyond their cultures – and ours – you will find a deeper level of humanity that’s common to all of us.  Getting in touch with that more fundamental humanity forces you to grow as a writer and lets you deliver a memorable reading experience.

What do you think?

Wish you could buy this author a cup of joe?

Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!

About Dave KingDave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.Web | Facebook | More Posts

"It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop."
Vita Sackville-West

Random picks

  • By Philip Marchand In his introduction to The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey, the author, Robert Morrison, quotes a social psychologist named Stanton Peele. “Addiction is not, as we like to think, an aberration from our way of life,” wrote Peele in 1975. “Addiction is our way of life.” If so, this is not a new development in human history. At the start of the 19th century in Britain, Morrison observes, doctors prescribed opium the way aspirin is prescribed today. Customers could obtain it over the counter in the form of Mother Bailey’s Quieting Syrup or Godfrey’s...
  • Many folks dream of blogging for revenue, and this goal is not far beyond the reach of somebody with average intelligence, a willingness to work tough, and a basic grasp of blogging technology. Even so, extremely few men and women manage to reap the profits they want from their blog. Most persons who attempt to generate cash with their blogs don’t succeed for two reasons. Typically, bloggers have unrealistic expectations of how fast their readership will grow and how a great deal income they’ll make, and when these expectations aren’t met the disappointment can crush the...
  • Here are two intriguing additions to literature about migration, inclusion and dislocation—or, in the words of one of the characters of Abdourahman A. Waberi’s novel Transit, the lives of “the peoples in motion through the shrinking world.” Of the two authors, Marie NDiaye, who grew up in France the daughter of a French mother and Senegalese father, is perhaps the more celebrated and better known.  A precocious talent, she published her first book at eighteen; received…...
  • I’ve become quite nostalgic in recent years. But my interest in the past extends far beyond my own. I’m also fascinated by the pasts of other people – for example, I really enjoy seeing all those “Throwback Thursday” photos on Facebook each week. And in particular, I am deeply intrigued by glimpses into the mysterious pasts of artists whom I admire. When did their gifts first surface? What inspirations awakened the artist inside the child? Did they always plan to become an artist, or fall into the life by accident? In my case, I never expected to become a writer...
  • Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and agents often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. In a customarily formatted book manuscript with chapters starting about 1/3 of the way down the page (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type), there are 16 or 17 lines on the first page. Here’s the question: Would you pay good money to read the rest of the chapter? With 50 chapters in a book that costs $15, each chapter would be “worth” 30 cents. So, before you read the excerpt, take 30 cents from your pocket or purse. When you’re done, decide what to do with those...

Recommended sites

Most recent titles

01
18 hours ago
02
2 days ago
04
3 days ago
05
3 days ago

Fast fact about writing

Writing most likely began as a consequence of political expansion in ancient cultures, which needed reliable means for transmitting information, maintaining financial accounts, keeping historical records, and similar activities.