This article is based on a session at AussieCon 4.
The panelists discussed accuracy in writing about characters in a time and place different to what the fiction writer is used to. While not everything will be known by a fiction writer about the time and place they are setting their story in (and that goes equally for contemporary stories set in an area where the fiction writer lives), there are some things which can be established through observation of physical archaeological evidence, reading documents, looking at drawing and photographs, watching video evidence, etc. However, it’s important to keep in mind what can actually be discovered from what evidence without jumping to conclusions.
More on the topic of factual accuracy can be found in the article On ‘Write What You Know’ and the article on ‘new histories for fantasy fiction’ linked below.
‘Accuracy’ of characters’ attitudes
The idea of accurately portraying attitudes of a time and place were discussed. However, this discussion was more in the sense of a monolithic conception of ‘the attitude of a time and place’ (warned against in the session Steal the Past, Build the Future: New histories for fantasy fiction), as in people in contemporary Australia have this attitude and people in late 18th century France had another attitude. Of course, in any time and place which encompasses a large number of people there will be a vast range of attitudes and extrapolating the attitudes of a time and place based on a selected sample of cases is very prone to error. To judge that something is ‘the dominant attitude of a time and place’ and then try to present that attitude or to ‘challenge’ it by presenting a conflicting attitude is a process which would reduce the portrayal of your story in that time and place to an absurdity which has more to do with a speculative method of ‘determining a dominant attitude’ than it has to do with telling a story as if it were set in that time and place.
This is a trap which many people with a burning desire to be ‘progressive’ fall into. However, many people who think they are being ‘progressive’ design their activities according what they think they are trying to progress away from. These sorts of judgments often take the form of a ‘broken past which needs to be fixed’ and tend to come from simplistic judgments about people of various times and places based on theoretical extrapolations from selectively chosen and very incomplete evidence. Many who embrace generalisations about the ‘attitudes of populations’ from different times and places try to refine a monolithic generalisation by mentally carving it up into a number of parts and attributing relationships between the imagined parts. This often takes the form of imagined ‘race, gender and socioeconomic class’ divisions. However, making a generalisation and then making sub-generalisations compounds the problem rather than solving it. Complicating an unreliable method with extra layers of the same kind of unreliable methods doesn’t make it any more reliable… but it may confuse some people or trick them into thinking the issue is ‘too complex’ for them to understand with an ‘expert interpreter’.
My advice is to distinguish factual evidence from theoretical generalisations and don’t claim that generalisations are facts (or that nothing is factual, making generalisations the most ‘valid’ kind of thought. By that reasoning the claim that nothing is factual cannot be factual, meaning that the claim itself and all assumptions arising from the claim would be nothing more than speculation).
Accurate portrayal when a fantasy story is based on a real historical time and place
The panelists briefly discussed that although a story containing fantasy elements will add an unreal aspect to the fictional setting of the story the story can still be based on a realistic portrayal of a time and place to the extent that the fantasy elements don’t specifically interfere with that.
The idea of fictional world-building was also discussed, in the sense that regardless of how much evidence you have for what life was, or is, or might be like for various people in a particular time and place creating a story set in that place and time requires building up a fictional world based on that setting and details you don’t or can’t know may be filled in to make the fictional setting work well in the story.
One of the panelists pointed out that there is not a great deal of detail known about the Picts of Iron Age Scotland compared to the people of many other times and places. A lack of detailed evidence can provide opportunities for a fiction writer to make up such details without anyone being able to prove them wrong, which some might consider to provide an extra degree of freedom in what they write. Of course, a fiction writer can choose to what degree and for which details they want to accurately portray the time and place of their setting regardless of how much can be known about it.
When you don’t know something about your chosen setting that you want to include in your fiction you can make an educated guess. People are people, whether they are in contemporary Australia or Iron Age Scotland. One of the panelists brought up the example of a Roman soldier who sent a letter home to his family from Hadrian’s Wall at the border between the Roman empire and the Pictish nation in northern Britain saying: “Please send woolen socks. It’s cold here.” Even without such a letter, a contemporary Australian fiction writer could quite easily imagine that the cold could be an issue which Roman soldiers would have to deal with that far north of the equator.
Readers can bring a contemporary sensibility to what they read
A panelist suggested the example that it’s different to shoot a wedge-tailed eagle in Australia now than it was in 1950, as there were more far more wedge-tailed eagles in Australia then and now they have been listed as endangered.
Your characters are not you
While you create your characters for a fictional story, they are not you. One of the panelists suggested deliberately making some aspect of characters you write different from you so you won’t be tempted to write about your own ideas and concerns in your own life and attribute them to your characters but to give your characters their own fictional ideas and concerns. She gave the example of making your character like brussel sprouts if you don’t like them, just to make it clear that they are a fictional character separate from you. This point could be considered especially relevant when writing a story set in a time and place very different to what you are used to. What’s important is the fictional thoughts and actions of your character, and these will be different to your own.
The Australian Literature Review