“The Victorians that Weren’t” is a guest post from Gail Z. Martin the co-author of Solaris Publishing’s forthcoming Iron and Blood steampunk adventure.
How true do characters in alternative history–including Steampunk–need to remain to the beliefs, mores and biases of their time? It’s a thorny question, as our ancestors–hell, our parents–held beliefs about the world, about men and women and sexuality, about religion and politics and race that we have rejected. But when you’re writing characters who are part of times before ours, how much can they be a product of their age, and how much can they embrace more modern views before they become cosplayers rather than believable protagonists?
It’s worthwhile to think this through no matter what genre you’re writing, but it particularly comes up in epic fantasy, alternative history and Steampunk, so I’ll take my comments in that direction.
The truth is that people have never been as homogenous as we are led to believe. While a majority of people may answer a polling question in the way they think they are meant to answer, or in a way that will not lead to punishment, their answer may not be what they actually think or do. Some people in every age have been ahead of their time/enlightened/progressive and out of step with cultural restrictions or bias. Not only do people bend the rules for themselves, they also give a pass to friends and family and people they like. Even individuals who may believe a negative stereotype of a group often make exceptions for individuals he/she knows well. Then there are the politicians and hypocrites, who loudly denounce a behavior while indulging in it themselves. Somehow, we manage to do this without our heads exploding.
That’s one of the things to love about history. While the overview version tells us that “everyone at the time believed XZY” a deeper study will show that there was debate, dissent and even rebellion. So we’re told that the Victorians kept women restricted to very gender-specific roles, but then we find women like Marie Curie and Ida Tarbell and Nelly Bly who did as they pleased. We subscribe to the belief that Victorians were all prudes, then have to reconcile that with scandals like Stanford White and the ‘girl in the velvet swing’. Private diaries and letters tell us that people in love–or lust–were pretty much the same then as they were now.
Likewise, what we think we know about racial beliefs and gender roles may be based on what was said for the official record, but looking more closely shows us women deeply involved in family businesses, academia, even professions like medicine and law long before it was regarded as the norm. Friendship and love affairs transcended racial barriers without waiting for society to give its blessing; perhaps not openly or in large numbers, but certainly with enough frequency to tell us that these progressive views were not the province of just a few visionaries. Research also now shows that gay relationships, while often kept private for fear of censure, nonetheless were no stranger to Victorian times or other periods of history.
What does this mean for ‘realistic’ characters? It’s funny that we think nothing of giving characters exceptional strength, intelligence, or battle skills, or gifting them with magic or supernatural powers, but then insist that they couldn’t possibly be progressive when it comes to gender roles, sexuality, race or sexual orientation!
Protagonists, male or female, usually need to be likable to the reader and relatable. They can also be flawed. One of the best ways to deal with this is to either have a character hold more progressive views because of a personal experience (for example, a man might hold more enlightened views about women and education because his sister is smart and has encountered discrimination applying to university), or because he/she has a philosophical or religious belief that requires a counter-cultural perspective. So for example, Quakers opposed slavery and war because of their interpretation of the Bible. Philosophers, artists, musicians and writers have long been known for being unwilling to be bound by social restrictions or prejudices that did not bear intellectual scrutiny.
Your characters, however, should not read like a modern person dropped into a costume drama. Defying social convention may come at a cost. Perhaps the protagonist is obliged to say one thing and do another, or perhaps wealth, privilege or physical prowess buys the ability to flout the norm. Maybe a protagonist begins with a certain bias but changes his/her views during the course of the story because of what is seen or experienced. Or maybe the hero/heroine begins the story making an exception from whatever restrictive belief is evident for a friend or family member and gradually comes to relax those views for a broader group.
The key thing is that the author must be aware of views held/espoused/acted upon by characters in the book that are now disavowed by society. If those views/actions are shown, the author should not appear to agree with them, or even worse, to be unaware of the bias implicit in the characters’ views/actions.
And just for the record, this is a good place to point out that Victorians were not all Caucasian! The British Empire extended around the world and included India, Asia, parts of Africa and the Middle East, Australia and many islands in the Pacific as well as Canada. Indigenous peoples were British subjects, too, and often traveled across the empire for work, education, military service or personal reasons. The United States in the Victorian period was home to Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, Latinos, Islanders, Africans and others. It isn’t unrealistic to depict diversity; it’s unrealistic to leave it out!
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Gail Z. Martin writes epic fantasy, urban fantasy and steampunk for Solaris Books and Orbit Books. In addition to Iron and Blood, she is the author of Deadly Curiosities and the upcoming Vendetta in her urban fantasy series;The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven, Dark Lady’s Chosen) from Solaris Books and The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn, The Dread) as well as Ice Forged, Reign of Ash, and War of Shadows in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga from Orbit Books. Gail writes two series of ebook short stories: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures and the Deadly Curiosities Adventures and her work has appeared in over 20 US/UK anthologies.
Larry N. Martin fell in love with fantasy and science fiction when he was a teenager. After a twenty-five year career in Corporate America, Larry started working full-time with his wife, author Gail Z. Martin and discovered that he had a knack for storytelling, plotting and character development, as well as being a darn fine editor. Iron and Blood is their first official collaboration. On the rare occasions when Larry isn’t working on book-related things, he enjoys pottery, cooking and reading.
Find them at www.JakeDesmet.com, on Twitter @GailZMartin or @LNMartinauthor, on Facebook.com/WinterKingdoms, at DisquietingVisions.com blog and GhostInTheMachinePodcast.com, on Goodreads free excerpts and Wattpad.