Historical Fudgery, character edition

Recently on “Finding your Roots”, the host profiled the histories of Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr. One of the things that predictably happened was that Henry Louis Gates tracked down a tie to slavery. After all, if we’re going back in American history, we’re going to find that…

Turns out that HCJr’s distant grandfather fought for the CSA. Gasp! He’d been a dockworker before, but signed up when the war broke out. HCJr found this distressing–a reaction that’s been shared by everyone on this series when told they were descended from a slave-owner or someone who fought in the war (as did Lisa on The Simpsons).

We don’t like to think of our ancestors as having ideals that are different from ours.

In the same way, we’re often not wild about characters who possess the morés of their times. I find Mad Men almost unbearable to watch…and that series takes place within my lifetime. It’s simply harder to relate to characters who do things you don’t like.

It’s not impossible. I’m not saying that. A lot of people LOVE Don Draper.

But as a writer it can be difficult to write historical characters who fit in with their times. I frequently write in the 1900-1910 period, yet I try to keep my characters away from a lot of the norms of those times: eugenics, no rights for women, prejudice, the pervasive smoking. (I’ve mentioned all of these in the past. They bug me.)

Oddly, I don’t have problems with my characters drinking in the Ambergris books, although none of them drink at the level found in Mad Men. I have characters who run the gamut from very religious (Joaquim) to comparatively a-religious (Duilio). I have a few characters who smoke, but not nearly the percentage that I saw in the novels of Queiroz (who wrote in that time period).

But I’ve also not mentioned the atmospheric level of illiteracy appropriate to the setting (87%), or the number of beggars on the streets (the Encyclopedia Britannica 1911 mentions both).

As a writer, I prefer to imagine my setting as being -better- than it was, my characters as -better-*. There are things in the past I don’t like to look at, things I’d prefer that my characters not do or think or feel. It’s fudgery. I know it.

Slavery falls into this category. I don’t think I’m going to write a sympathetic slave owner any time soon. The Portuguese were heavily involved in slavery, transporting vast numbers of Africans to Brazil, Cabo Verde, and the Carribean. But my characters made their money in fabric and salvage. Yep, no slave traders. I’m just not ready for that yet.

As a writer, what is hard for you to write about, even though it might be appropriate to your time period?

*”Better” being totally determined by my feelings at the time…

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