Thursday, June 6, 2013

Heroes, Heroines and Holy Puppeteers ...

Writers who pen historical novels have to make a decision: How realistic do they make the world view of their chief characters? If a novel is set in 13th Century England, should the hero, heroine and other characters who populate the pages of the book think like 13th Century men and women?

The Great Puppeteer God controls our hero.
That’s an important decision. If you want your character to belong to the 13th Century, then you have some closet cleaning to do. Right now your storage closet is filled with some very interesting boxes and chests. One says: Renaissance.

Take the Renaissance box and toss it into the trash bin. Your 13th Century characters won’t be alive when the Renaissance dawns. No invention of metal movable type, no flowering of Latin and vernacular literatures, no resurgence of learning based on classical sources, no paintings using linear perspective or other techniques meant to render a more natural reality, no increased reliance on observation by scientists.

Our well-dressed hero and heroine
See that chest with the plaque that reads Scientific Revolution? That flowering of knowledge lay almost 300 years in the future. Get some help so you can transport the Scientific Revolution chest to the landfill.

Without the Scientific Revolution to spur men and women to bring scientific principles to intellectual and social thinking, you can also toss out that big box with the oversized lettering that reads: The Enlightenment. That means your characters won’t be debating the merits of constitutions and democracy versus socialism and absolute monarchies. Or building steam engines and hot-air balloons.

Which means no Industrial Revolution, so you can tell the Waste Management folks to haul off the giant chest containing the machine parts for textile and paper mills.

That leaves just one more chest, the one with the lid covered with taped postcards showing moon rockets, skyscrapers, movie posters, and a DNA helix. It’s the chest with the plaque that reads: Modern Age.

Better watch out for quakes and whirlwinds
Your 13th Century characters can’t use those boxes and chests. They’re gone, buried in the landfill or burned up in the incinerator. Instead, the people of your book will see God directly manipulating their world for his own sometimes unfathomable reasons. To them, he’s the Great Puppeteer and their 13th century world is his grand stage.

If you plot out a scene where a whirlwind levels your hero’s villa, your hero knows God was behind the whirlwind and punished him for some reason he must uncover through prayer. In fact, he probably believes God was inside the whirlwind using his mighty breath to power the tornado.

13th Century book binding
How would your hero or heroine react if an earthquake damaged their castle or walled city? Their thought processes would work the same way as they did with the tornado. More prayers, perhaps more interpretations of dreams since they can be messages from God. And if your hero is a king or baron and decides that God wants him to punish a particular group of people – perhaps Jews or gypsies – then your hero knows he must fulfill God’s will and that means holy bonfires cooking ungodly flesh.

21st Century readers won’t go for such a hero who has never heard of natural law and believes God is the Great Puppeteer who provides favors for some and curses for others.

That’s why often the heroes and heroines appear to have been plucked out of the second decade of the 21st Century and deposited in another century, or in the case of the genre I write in –fantasy – another world usually governed not only by natural law but by the forces of magic as well – and that means a whole other class of creatures, creatures spawned by magic.

Realism can go only so far when writing novels that stray away from modern times.


  1. And in the C14th the Church said the Plague was God's punishment for sin. There was some serious spinning when it became apparent that the clergy experienced a disreportionate number of victims : )

    In fairness the Clergy also visited the sick and dying - and every other day the sick and as yet undiagnosed were going to church,

  2. It wasn't that many years ago -- the late 80s -- I read an article in the magazine of the Florida Southern Baptist Convention where the writer took the courageous stand (for that time) critizing Baptist churches in the Sunshine State that were not allowing people with AIDs to worship in their sancturaries.

  3. Whoops ... that's "criticizing."