Friday, September 12, 2014

Spotswood on How Not to Write Anachronistic Girls

Over at Corsets, Cutlasses, & Candlesticks, Jessica Spotswood (Born Wicked) discusses how not to write anachronistic female characters when penning historical fiction. Excerpts:
Now, of course there have been women throughout history who have yearned for something more than their lots in life, who have wanted more for themselves than their families or societies expected. Of course there have been scientists, queens, athletes, inventors, writers, businesswomen, and artists of all kinds. But there have also been many, many women who were content to be wives and mothers (or perhaps they were not content, but went along with it anyway, because few other options were afforded them). Marriage, motherhood, and housekeeping are, after all, was much of what society has expected for women throughout the ages -- and considering all that went (and still goes) into keeping a family fed and clothed and housed and healthy, it’s no small task.

We all want our main characters to stand out, to be special. They are the ones telling the story or at the center of it, driving the action. ... However, there’s a certain problematic shorthand to making a heroine “strong” that involves making her Not Like All the Other Girls. And one easy way to do that is to make her disdain things the other girls like or want -- whether it’s an interest in fashion, sewing, watercolors, piano, or other ladylike pursuits of the era or the pursuit of marriage and family.
Read the whole thing. Spotswood offers a handy list of ways to avoid creating chronologically disjointed characters, urging writers to consider the mores society might've instilled in historical protagonists and (if an author wants to subvert them) the cognitive dissonance, familial consequences, and compensatory viewpoints that might result. It's a useful framework, but I would add another bullet point for folks who set stories in bygone eras: Stop and seriously consider why a particular civilization's standards existed in the first place. People in previous centuries weren't necessarily stupid, senselessly superstitious, or irrevocably hidebound. They had reasons for acting the way in which they did, and even if we disagree with them, we need to know what they were first. Unbiased understanding should always precede evaluation.

(Picture: CC 2009 by freeparking :-|; Hat Tip: @victoriastrauss)

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