Monday, June 29, 2015

Why Are the Little Differences So Hard to Imagine in Fantasy?

A fellow writer recently asked (on an online fantasy site) how people had sex in the olden days, when most people lived in one room cottages or huts. Surely the presence of a couple's children, in the same room, or perhaps even the same bed, would have put a damper on things, he reasoned.

As someone who grew up loving the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, there as a point (sometime around my own pre-adolescent period, probably) when I wondered something similar. How did Ma and Pa have sex when Laura, Mary, and Carrie were sleeping in the same one-room cabin on the prairie?

The answer, of course, is that people in different times and places did not (or do not) share our modern, post-Victorian sensibilities about having sex in front of the children. They probably waited until they thought the kids were asleep and had at it. And maybe, when the weather was fine, couples found ways to steal moments alone together in barns, thickets, haystacks, even churches.

Nowadays, many people think it's immodest, or even potentially harmful, for kids to overhear, let alone see, their parents making the beast with two backs. That attitude has hardly been the norm throughout history. Parents probably didn't sit down with their kids and  have "the talk" back then. Kids simply learned about sex via osmosis (and of course, most people in agrarian, nomadic, or hunter-gatherer societies were around animals a lot while growing up, so they almost certainly made the connection there too).

This article does a great job of discussing sex in the middle ages. In fact, people really weren't as prudish back then as many suppose.

In spite of what some people have been insisting (in light of the recent SCOTUS ruling legalizing and legitimizing same-sex marriage in all fifty states), sexual morality is a very fluid and variable thing across history and cultures.

This question got me to thinking, though. There are numerous fantasy novels that show people living in societies with attitudes where the big things--slavery, torture, sexism, public executions, a rigid class or caste structure--are very different from ours. Yet the things that we have trouble envisioning as writers and readers are often the little, everyday differences (like people mostly living in a single room and parents thinking nothing about having sex while their kids are present).

Imagine a romance or fantasy novel with a love scene where the couple is holding back their cries of passion so they don't awaken their toddler, who is sleeping in the bed with them.

Another example of a fact that freaked me out when I learned (sometime around middle school age, I think) it was that women didn't wear underpants under their dresses until fairly recently. The thought of walking around all day with one's most personal and vulnerable parts open from below, gave me the heebie jeebies.
Fragonard's The Swing: What is this fellow looking at?
Of course, I've since figured out that those heavy skirts and petticoats were unlikely to blow up or reveal one's nether regions, even when it was windy or their owner climbing ladders, but it still feels a bit odd to me. On the plus side, the idea that brassieres didn't exist before the 20th century turns out to be untrue.

One thing that's very hard to relate to is differing attitudes about personal hygiene. I admit I was very relieved to learn that all those tales about how no one ever bathed in the olden days were rather exaggerated (though, interestingly, westerners were at their most foul during the early modern era, not the middle ages), and in fact, clothes washing and periodic bathing have been the norm throughout history, even if people didn't always live up to modern standards of cleanliness.

Given how itchy and stinky I am after just a couple days of days camping, I'll admit that a character who bathes but once a year and never cleans his/her teeth is harder for me to relate to than an assassin who kills people for a living. Brent Week's Durzo Bint? I had more problem with his garlic-chewing habit (I have a very low tolerance for garlic, even in food, and the smell of it on someone's breath makes me physcially ill) than I did his talent for slaughter. No fangirl crush on that character!

And speaking of bathing, anything resembling the Japanese tradition of families bathing together doesn't seem to be something that comes up terribly often in fantasy novels. I suspect that many modern authors have too much trouble stepping away from the notion that nakedness is an inherently sexual condition.

A print of this painting hangs in my hall bathroom.
Another social convention that few modern fantasy writers explore in their worlds are communal latrines. Outside of boot camp, modern western bathrooms tend to have locking doors or screens around the toilets, at least. Yet the Romans had communal latrines and public piss pots where people of both genders "went" in front of one another, and even socialized whilst they did. Especially revolting to me, however, is the concept of the shared sponges.

Toilets are definitely one of those intimate, everyday things with which we like to take for granted. Anyone who has been camping, or traveled in a country where facilities are designed differently, knows how disconcerting it is to adapt to a different way of answering nature's call.

Moving to the other end of the alimentary canal, I also have a hard time getting my head around the idea that toothbrushes seem to be a very recent invention (though unsurprisingly, the Chinese might have had something similar). However, people did indeed have ways of cleaning their teeth in the old days, and some research suggests that tooth cleaning sticks made from some kinds of trees or shrubs do an excellent job of promoting gingival health.

Habits of grooming or beauty aesthetics that are different from ours can be a jolt also. It's hard for me to imagine being attracted to a man with a tonsure, for instance, though those have existed in various times and places in history (and not just for monks). And when I saw the Kurosawa movie Ran many years ago, I was put off by the way the women plucked their brows to nothing and drew fake ones in way above their natural position. These looked odd to me. It's another one of those "small things" that wouldn't be very comfortable for me to imagine in a protagonist in a fantasy novel.

There are plenty of other "little things" that have changed throughout history and that vary between cultures. Taboos, habits of personal hygiene and grooming, even table manners (like using fingers to eat instead of utensils). Even though it can be a bit uncomfortable, I think authors sometimes miss opportunities to use these kinds of small differences as a means of reminding their readers that their characters aren't simply modern people wearing costumes. It's challenging, though, because for some readers, the ability to connect emotionally, even romantically, with a character is an important part of the experience of reading.

Feel free to comment and chime in on some of your own blind spots about history. What kinds of small, everyday differences have you tried to incorporate into a fantasy culture? Which ones put you off so much it's hard to relate to a character who practices them?


  1. One of the things that sets my teeth on edge is idiosyncracy. I get irritated when I read in Medieval style fantasy about the upstairs rooms in the very humblest cottages, their sash windows, the study where Father goes to read his parchments, the said parchments that are used like post-its by the village idiots, the shops in said village where people buy their groceries, get their hair cut, hire an assassin, the castles with moats and drawbridges that any Tom Dick or Harry can just wander into and ask the Gendarme on duty to go and speak to the King, who of course is sitting just behind the front door on his throne with his crown on, waiting for his wife, the Queen to serve supper... There is a huge gulf of understanding about the differences between How They Lived in the Early Middle Ages and How They Lived in the mid-nineteenth century. For some writers there is no difference...

    1. Exactly. A one-room hut is one of those "little things" that most readers find very difficult to relate to or imagine. And most of the historical buildings one sees in the UK and Europe, even ones that date back to the middle ages, have been added onto and expanded since. So many people really don't know that multi room homes with fireplaces only date to the 12th century (and of course, average people didn't get to live in such until much later). Of course, a lot of medieval style fantasy isn't really meant to be such, but readers often assume it is. I had a beta call me out on the existence of crude telescopes and microscopes in my "medieval" world, but in fact, my setting is supposed to be early modern. I had to sneak a firearm and a clock into the opening scene of my novel to make this clear, because without distinct cues, most readers will default assume any pre-industrial fantasy setting is supposed to be medieval and strictly modeled on Europe.

      Of course, a lot of fantasy is supposed to be a fun amalgamation of settings and eras that allows the reader to escape. Whether or not this works depends on the feel of the story, and of course, the reader.

  2. Heh. Now I'm imagining a 50SG parody, Little Red Room of Pain on the Prairie.