Sunday, April 19, 2015

Writing Stories Set in Societies That Aren't Ours

 Writing from the point of view of someone who isn't like oneself. This is an issue faced by most fiction writers, of course. Most of us don't want to write stories with different versions of ourselves over and over and over. But writers of historical and speculative fiction have a special problem: they're writing in settings where the characters are likely to have very different sensibilities from modern readers.

Writers of historical fiction have a more restrictive situation, since they're constrained by what we actually know about a period of history. If your novel is set in ancient Rome, or the antebellum South, you have to have slavery. And attitudes about everything from the role and status of women, treatment of children, treatment of animals, pluralism, class/castes etc. varied greatly with time and place, but they were usually quite different from our modern sensibilities. Fantasy writers have more leeway, as they can construct worlds and societies that are different from history. But it's still unlikely that the attitudes held by characters in a different society are going to mirror ours in all, or even most respects.

This leads to some questions about both world building and characterization. How do you portray your world and character in a way that's plausible, internally consistent and different without alienating modern readers?

The answer is complex.

First of all, one should do meticulous homework. This is vital when writing in a real-world setting, but it's important for writers who creates fictional worlds too. One shouldn't rely on what "everyone" knows about a given time and place. Some conventional wisdom is wrong, and even carefully researched history often ignores the perspectives or contributions of marginalized people unless you really dig for them.

On a lighter note, many modern readers assume that Hoffmann's Struwwelpeter represents an accurate view of 19th century German morality regarding child rearing, but in fact, the stories were very tongue in cheek, and cutting children's thumbs off was no more acceptable then than it is now. Hoffmann was an interesting mix of qualities, in fact, with some attitudes that were very ahead of his time, and some that weren't.

Secondly, people living in a given place and time aren't monolithic. History tends to focus on averages and blur distinctions between groups and individuals. I've often wondered how historians (let alone pop culture) of the future might portray the attitudes and norms of Americans during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. I can think of several social issues that are currently very much in contention. Presenting an "average" way everyone thinks about them is impossible, even for modern pollsters. Anyone who has been in a conversation with friends and family (let alone online) about the divisive, or even not-so-divisive, issues of the day knows this.

Results from 2010 Gallup Poll shows how divided modern people are on many issues. The gap between what people say they believe and how they actually behave may be even wider on some of these issues, at least.

 People hold a wide variety of views and these views are even sometimes inconsistent or self-contradictory. Societal baselines change over time, but that doesn't mean no one in the past overlapped with modern views. Imagine a hypothetical future where nearly everyone (except an occasional depraved weirdo) is vegetarian and it's illegal to spank one's kids. Will writers of historical fiction insist that it's unrealistic to portray any early 21st century Americans as being anti-spanking or as vegetarians simply because the average person living in our times eats meat and hits their kids? And even more tellingly, would they insist on presenting everyone who eats meat and practices corporal punishment as having the exact same approach to or attitude about their own behavior?

Thirdly, one must consider who you are writing your story for, or to put it another way, what the purpose of your story is.

--Is it simply to entertain the reader by transporting them to an "exotic," yet still relatable time and place, a setting that's foreign yet fun? This is often referred to as "escapist" fiction. Some readers of historical romance, or fantasy want to enter a fairy tale (and not one that resembles the original darker versions of fairy tales either). Writers of grittier or more "realistic" fiction may poo poo this, but I don't think it's necessarily wrong.

--Is it to indulge a power fantasy that one might have about living in a world where their kind of person has a level of autonomy, acceptance, and control they probably lacked in real history, or might even lack in the world today? Another kind of escapism, I suppose.

--Is it to subtly explore a different perspective or world view in a critical way (or in a way that shines a light on our own)?

--Is it to create a "what if" scenario, an alternative world where history unfolded differently because of the speculative story elements?

--Is it to give the reader a chance to see what it would have been like, possibly, to be an outlier in a historical setting (for instance, to be an abolitionist in the antebellum South or a pioneering feminist during the Early Modern Era)?

--Is it simply there to show the reader how things really were once upon a time (maybe so that they're damned glad they don't live in the story world)?

--Is it to immerse the reader in a different world view or set of sensibilities and do it so seamlessly that they internalize them for the duration of the story?

--Is it to create characters that the reader can like and relate to on a visceral level?

None of these reasons is necessarily wrong, and not all are mutually exclusive, but goals and target audience will determine how a writer approaches a story with characters who have sensibilities that might be repellent to most characters. The thing to keep in mind is that no approach is likely to appeal to all readers. Their own experiences in life, and who they are, will determine what they're comfortable reading.

I have more thoughts on this issue, but I think this is a good stopping place for today.