I’ve been thinking long and hard about some of the things that came up in my discussion with Dr. Gillian Polack in the CoyoteCon workshop on writing historical fiction set in the middle ages. She asserted that people write historical fiction set in the middle ages to explore the pageantry of the time, explore a thesis or educate the readers. My position was that you wrote historical fiction in any age to understand the people who lived then. After all, you can’t understand what pageantry is without understanding the people who celebrated it.
We also disagreed on where you start in writing historical fiction. She posted that you start with the history, and I wrote that you start with the person and then look to understand them in their culture at that time in history. Now, I firmly believe that you can not separate people from their history, nor from their culture, so in a way, we were saying the same thing, like two sides of a coin. You can’t understand people’s decisions, nor can you make sense of their goals and what they were trying to achieve if you don’t understand the history and the culture they lived in. However, what does it mean to start with history and culture, or to start with the person? Especially since the history, the culture, both impact the goals and conflicts that a person will face in their life. History will also impact their lives, as known events overcome them as the characters strive for their goals.
A person is much more than their time and place, however, their time and place define what the expected options are and offer up the consequences from deviation from them. As an example taken from my own fiction, a person in the eighth century France is not likely dreaming of a marriage to their beloved, but a person in the thirteenth century is not only likely to be hoping for a marriage to their beloved, their social institutions are changing rapidly to support these hopes while many held onto traditional views of parents choosing the right spouse for their children. So many of the stories of the era show this conflict unfolding. And if the character is from the south of France, they may be daydreaming of having many lovers instead of a loving husband, and the stories and songs of the region reflect this regional difference.
As an example, in the south of France, in the mid 13th century especially in the aristocracy, a woman was expected to court many lovers, and a man of station to court such women. In my Garden at the Roof of the World, the Lady Elisabeth du Chauvigny was raised to believe that one sought lovers, courting many a man to serve and worship her as their lady, but she lives on the edge of the ideas circulating in the north of France that one should marry for love. She lives in a region untouched by the Albigensian crusade, but the confusion of what is the right way to live and love complicates her life and makes her story that much more authentic to the time. As we live in a time when the definition of the right way to live out a loving relationship is also being redefined in our society, it is worth looking at her life and considering the impact of such change and confusion on the people we know and love.
Before you ask what kind of character you are writing, you need to understand the era, the culture of that time and place. That will help you define how others in your story react to the person, if their actions and decisions are viewed sympathetically or with disgust. However, in the end, a story is about a person striving, and every time and place have an infinite variation in the people who lived and strove. If you start with understanding the person, their goals, their hopes, their fears, their relationships and then put those things into the context of culture and history of the era, you will have a well defined person who fits within the history of the age, the culture of their society, and a story that pulls you into the richness of lives past and deeds worth telling.
W. B. J. Williams is the author of THE GARDEN AT THE ROOF OF THE WORLD, a medieval adventure fantasy released by Dragonwell Publishing on August 30, 2013.