“Here’s how great it is to be white: if I would have a time machine I could go to any time and it would be awesome when I get there! That is exclusively a white privilege! Black people can’t fuck with time machines!”– Louis C.K.
Last week I talked about the gentler side of what happens when Memberberries start growing in your historical fiction. Escapism is all well and good, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, especially not when fiction does so much to shape our perceptions of very real history and its very real consequences. With that in mind, let’s have a look at the darker side of this phenomenon.
History looks different depending on the characteristics of whoever is telling the story– depending on socioeconomic class, gender, race, or a thousand other features, your sources will have a unique perspective. Since those sources tend to be biased towards those who had more power and resources, this is also a giant hiding place for unexamined privilege, both for the original creator and those researching and creating fiction about a historical period. This is most apparent when the author frames the story around a Generic Privileged Protagonist interacting with a marginalized group. By dint of the power dynamics in play, this almost always veers off into problematic territory.
It should be noted that the author here is not (usually) malicious– in fact, many authors who have created deeply problematic work in this vein claim to be admirers of the marginalized group in question and seem puzzled that they’ve generated offense. At the same time, intent will only get you so far, and while the trope I’m describing is not inherently bad, it’s in the high-risk category (along with satire, postmodernism, and sex scenes) of literary tropes and devices which are extremely difficult to execute well. It’s also worth noting that it’s built off a questionable assumption about the emotional and intellectual abilities of the privileged– that is, that they cannot relate to a protagonist who isn’t exactly like them. It’s insulting and absurd and shouldn’t guide your character development.
Caveats aside, this trope goes wrong in one of two general ways. The first is that your character becomes the narrative equivalent of a photobomber, popping up and distracting from the more interesting background characters and storylines (I personally consider James Fennimore Cooper’s Natty Bumpo to be the ur-example of this). Fortunately there’s an easy cure– pick the most compelling character with the most compelling plotline to be the new protagonist, and scrap the old one. (Rule of thumb: the character with the biggest, most compelling, highest-stakes conflict should be the main character).
The more disturbing way this trope goes wrong is when the main character becomes a vehicle for self-indulgent gawking at the tragedies of other times and places. The character is allowed to pity or even help the people who will bear the brunt of the historical awfulness being described, demonstrating that they are ‘one of the good ones.’ It’s the satisfaction of heroic fantasy– ‘I would have stood up to Hitler in 1934’ or ‘I would have been an abolitionist’– without a call to action, safely tucked away in another time and place where the merest expression of kindness to a marginalized group can be framed as brave and progressive and worthy of applause instead of being the bare minimum of socially acceptable behavior. While often framed uncritically, it can come across as a creepy sort of voyeurism.
This also has the plot-dampening effect of shielding the protagonist from the highest stakes in the story. Given that they are being waited on and protected by the marginalized group as a major plot point (a trope which is worth its own post), and that they are likely to be spared by the Evil Overlord due to their own identity, it shields the protagonist from being all-in as far as the consequences of failure. And as any good suspense writer knows, ‘all in’ is the best place your characters can be.
The best cure for this collective historical amnesia is digging deep into primary sources and well-regarded secondary sources, especially those that are about the histories and daily lives of marginalized groups. Get to know the most compelling issues of the day, and choose characters whose fate is bound up with those issues. The grimier, more complex version of history is usually not only the truer version, but the weirder, funnier, more tragic, and more exciting one.