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Marginal Notes

Sympathetic Characters in Unsympathetic Worlds


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.

In the comments section of last month’s Writer Unboxed article, 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.

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?

The easiest thing to do 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 feel 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 Guenivere, Tristan and Isolde, just about anyone in Boccacio’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 Royel’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.