Historical Fiction – How “Modern” Should the Characters Be?

I’ve been living in the past lately. Why wouldn’t I, when there’s so much fabulous historical fiction around? Between The Murder Next Door, HMS Expedient and Nights at the Circus, I’ve not read anything set later than 1912 in quite a while.

Writing characters from another time can be difficult. You don’t want to take readers out of the story by having characters do or say things that are obviously anachronistic. You also don’t want readers to start hating the characters because they’ve said or done things that are completely objectionable to a modern audience (unless they’re the villain, of course).

So how modern should we make them? I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer to this question, but here are some of my thoughts. Feel free to add your own in the comments!

Modern characters in period costume

In some historical fiction, the characters act, think and talk very much like modern people. They might use the occasional old-fashioned word like “strumpet” or “consumption” but it’s just window dressing.

Is there anything wrong with this? Not necessarily. If you’re writing a fun, escapist historical romance, a lot of readers will actually be looking for 21st-century characters enjoying a modern love story, but with corsets and adorably formal language.

If you know that historical accuracy is not a priority for you or your readers, stand your ground against the purists and let your characters be as progressive, sarcastic, outspoken, sex-positive and generally “modern” as you want them to be.

Tread carefully

But what if gritty historical realism is more your style? This is where things get tricky, because you have to look at your characters through two different lenses. The first is their historical context – what were the norms of behaviour in that time and place? The second is the modern context – how will modern readers react to those behaviours?

The number one thing to be careful with is bigotry. We all know that sexist and racist attitudes were more socially accepted in the past, but be wary about how your characters express them. Some useful questions to ask yourself are:

  • Are they being hateful, or just ignorant?
  • Can their views be challenged in some way?
  • Is it necessary? Remember there are other ways of making your characters realistically flawed.

A less obvious thing that 21st-century readers often have a problem with is passivity. In our modern society, we’re brought up to think of ourselves as masters of our own destiny and act accordingly.

This wasn’t always the case, but readers often still expect characters in historical fiction to shape their own stories. Don’t expect them to empathise with a woman who meekly accepts marriage to a man she hates and doesn’t even bother to have an affair!

Character vs personality

One thing to remember when writing characters from other time periods is that different personality traits were valued at different points in history. In her rather excellent non-fiction book Quiet, Susan Cain argues that “personality” is basically a 20th-century invention.

Before most people lived in big cities and worked in sales-based economies, “character” was the order of the day, and traits such as being hard-working, honest and modest were valued.

20th century changes in how people made a living caused a shift in focus from character to personality, and people began to value flashier traits such as confidence, charm and creativity.

Don’t be afraid to write a protagonist “of good character” rather than one with “lots of personality”. Nobody reads Pride and Prejudice and says “If only Mr Darcy were more expressive and a better communicator, I’d like him so much more.”

Context is key

Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that independent female characters, powerful ethnic minority characters or happy LGBT+ characters don’t belong in historical fiction. People have always found ways to overcome societal barriers.

However, it’s important to remember that traits such as strength, power and independence look different in different contexts. Just because a 21st-century feminist is expected to be outspoken and unfiltered, that doesn’t mean an 18th-century feminist would act the same way.  

Perhaps she has to be cunning, or even sneaky, to get ahead in the world. Perhaps she has to be more flexible, or more stubborn and determined. Maybe she has to get angry, or maybe it’s vitally important that she doesn’t lose her temper. Don’t ask yourself “What would I do in that situation?”, but “What would I do if I’d grown up in that situation?”

Thanks very much for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts on character in historical fiction, and I’d also love to get some hist fic recommendations!

2 thoughts on “Historical Fiction – How “Modern” Should the Characters Be?

  1. I notice certain flaws in historical fiction. One is when a character uses a modern phrase. Another is when their viewpoint reflects a general belief or philosophy that didn’t come into being for a century or two later in history. I wish authors were more careful with this.

    Liked by 1 person

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