How to avoid stereotypes when writing historical fiction – Michael Wallace

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By Michael Wallace

The past is a foreign country. Or so they insist, although it seems like they could just ask the general public. We’ve all lived just across the border, haven’t we, in a few nearby realms known by names such as the Seventies and Eighties? There are even citizens of the Twenties and Thirties still kicking around, and they seem mostly normal, so far as I can tell, even if they sometimes talk funny and prefer bland food.♥

But doesn’t it seem like the further you go back, the more alien people become? Some of what you learn is unsettling (boys used to swim naked in gym class???) and other stuff is downright alarming. Good heavens, they owned slaves? They believed in witches and thought bad air caused disease? Sure sounds like a foreign land, a veritable Third World hellhole.

The problem for a writer or reader is that you can fall into this way of thinking so easily that it becomes just another lazy way to characterize people. People from history are both strange and yet easily stereotyped. If you write about the Civil War, for example, it’s easy to draw a character with one or two brush strokes. You might have a fine Southern lady, a Massachusetts farm boy, an abolitionist, a slave, a slave holder, a riverboat gambler, a blockade runner, etc. These are all types and you barely need more explanation than what I’ve given. To mention them is to characterize them.

But isn’t that the same thing as saying someone is a “Baptist” or a “Chinese” or a “teenage girl?” What does that even mean? Falling on stereotypes is boring, even offensive. We wouldn’t accept such a lazy characterization of contemporary characters, so it’s surprising how many people accept or even expect that historical characters will behave as types.

When it comes to the struggle between capturing the universal nature of the human experience and writing a character who feels one hundred percent authentic to her time period, I always lean to the universal. It costs me sometimes. I’ve had reviewers complain that my 17th century heroine was a modern feminist, for example, or that there wouldn’t be skeptics in a Puritan community. Some people think that pre-marital sex didn’t exist before the death of Queen Victoria.

What I’m angling for instead, is having a character who is informed by her surroundings but follows one of the many patterns of human behavior present in all societies. I’ve put a free-thinking young man in a polygamist community (The Righteous), a loyal daughter dealing with Nazis in Occupied France while she searches for her father (The Red Rooster), and in my newest book, The Crescent Spy, an ambitious young woman who grew up on a riverboat into the middle of the most momentous events of the Civil War. The past is a foreign country, but my characters aren’t foreigners. They’re us.

Now excuse me, I’m prepping for my trip abroad. Did you know that in 1850, land is practically free on the California coast, and you can live like a king for $10,000 a year? I hear the internet is kind of slow, though. I’ve got my passport up to date, but can someone tell me how long I can stay before I need a visa?

Michael Wallace was born in California and raised in a small religious community in Utah, eventually heading east to live in Rhode Island and Vermont. In addition to working as a literary agent and innkeeper, he has been a software engineer for a Department of Defense contractor programming simulators for nuclear submarines. He is the author of more than twenty novels.

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