This Isn’t Water: Cultural Myopia and Historical Fiction

“[T]he most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
–David Foster Wallace

All of us carry around core assumptions, ideas so ingrained in our psyche that we don’t even notice them as ideas, but rather obvious truths, like gravity. When writing, failing to identify those entrenched beliefs– the ‘water’ of cultural assumptions in which we swim– can be a trap on several levels. One of the tasks of the writer is to step outside oneself and write the ‘other’ convincingly, whether that’s a viewpoint character or a villain, no matter how much of the setting is drawn from your experience. It requires the understanding that every person has a unique perception of reality, shaped by their experiences, beliefs, and environment.

When this challenge is expanded to an entire setting– where not only do individual characters not share our uniquely shaped perspectives, but operate within an entirely different cultural framework– we have to take this understanding of the ‘other’ a step further. When it works, it transports the reader into the setting. For  particularly brilliant examples of this, check out the work of Hilary Mantel and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi.

But there’s a temptation when one is writing historical fiction to impose our value system upon the characters, particularly the heroes. Some explicitly give the character exceptionally progressive views for the period, often in defiance of historical context or any outside philosophical movements (or characters who agree with them). Others more subtly– perhaps subconsciously– give the characters jarringly modern values in an otherwise historically accurate setting.

It’s amazingly easy to do. I have the advantage of a coauthor to notice my perspectives creeping in anachronistically, and vice versa. The key is deep research into the cultural underpinning of the period– including the ‘water’ of their deeply held collective assumptions– and consciously writing your characters as carriers of these ideas. Then have an outside eye check for consistency.

The reward is a setting that is convincingly historical, and characters who are believable citizens of that world, so that your readers can time-travel completely into the world of your story.

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2 thoughts on “This Isn’t Water: Cultural Myopia and Historical Fiction

  1. Pingback: Sanitizing Historical Horror is Bad Citizenship | S. B. Stewart-Laing

  2. Pingback: ‘I Mean, Look at Her’: On Harassing Women in Fiction | S. B. Stewart-Laing

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