Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Well, what does make a character ‘historical’? As opposed to a character with all the concerns of any individual of today in human relationships and survival, that is, who happens to wear a different costume from us, a modern man or woman in fancy dress. Lets look at that.

Demons From The Livre de la vigne nostre Seigneur 1450 - 70
In reality, an ordinary person from the Middle Ages or from many ages in the past could be almost paralysed from any out of the ordinary action by fear of retribution from God, the gods (of which there were many, all looking out for their own interests) and one’s social superiors or of seduction by the Devil and his demons, which made many scared to go to sleep for fear of dreams, which, of course, were the Devil attempting to do just that. 

Life was constantly interrupted by religious observances at different times of the day, by religious festivals and feast days which were compulsory, by the Sabbath when, at certain times, anything resembling work and even travel was not allowed. Questioning the behaviour of one’s social superiors was definitely not a good idea.

Peasants dance at a celebration in a medieval village.
© The Granger Collection, New York
Now that is not very conducive to effective detective work on a timescale that would be acceptable to the normal novel reader. So we historical crime writers have to find ways round it. We either fudge and make our characters say a guilty prayer when they infringe some rule or other or we make sure they have a mandate or dispensation from a monarch or bishop or other high authority. Or we choose one of the more liberal eras or more rule-breaking figures as our detective.

But beyond those extremes, they should ideally think within the mental frame of the age, accepting most of the received wisdom and attitudes to slaves, serfs, servants, women, children, foreigners, people of other religions, lords and ladies, and religious dignitaries. 

Now, if we went all the way with that, especially in our lead characters, they would not be very acceptable to many readers in our politically conscious age. So again, we are likely to fudge and nod in these directions while finding reasons why their attitudes are just that bit more liberal than their fellows.

And often we do this subconsciously because we ourselves have the need to create characters we can empathise with. After all, we have to live with them in our heads for even longer than the reader while each novel is evolving.

PS: I’ll aim to develop these ideas further maybe in some other place and time.

Reminder: My first guestblog goes up at Julie Lomoe’s Musings Mysterios tomorrow March 5th

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