One of the toughest jobs for a historical fiction writer is creating a world that the modern-day reader can relate to. How do you bridge the gulf between the characters of (sometimes ancient) history and the young people of the twenty-first century? You fix on the wants and needs that never change, no matter what the age.
1. Everyone wants love.
Children want validation. People fall in love (or lust). Though love will look different in different societies—the relationship between the sexes, the way children are raised, how friendships form—people always yearn for acceptance and affection. Build some of that into your story.
2. Kids rebel.
As a girl grows into a woman, she develops her own ideas, distinct from her parents. Kids have always questioned the status quo, though their “rebellion” make look quite subtle next to, say, the baby boomers of 1967. Know what rebellion looks like in the society you’re portraying, and write accordingly. If the breakout is extreme, be sure the reaction to it is equally so. The behavior of a young woman who elopes with a stranger may be upsetting to her parents even today, but in some societies it was a scandal of epic proportions.
3. People grieve for lost loved ones.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because the infant mortality rate was high in 1700, no one grieved when a child died. The death of a child, parent, or spouse has always been a cause for soul-searching and grief. Put yourself in your characters’ shoes. Some will react with great emotion, others will seal themselves off from emotion. A man whose wife has lost three babies in stillbirth may be cold and unconnected to his fourth child to avoid being hurt again.
4. People dream, sometimes big.
What do your characters dream of? Is it a homestead in the West? The right to vote? A good marriage? A real education? People have never stopped dreaming or striving for something better, even if they’re peasants or slaves. But again, scale those dreams to fit the character’s circumstances. Is a slave likely to dream of becoming president? He certainly might, but realize that if he does, his contemporaries are likely to laugh at him.
Stay true to what makes people tick, and your readers will latch on to those same universal desires in their own lives.
Claire M. Caterer is the author of The Key & the Flame, a fantasy set in an alternate version of medieval England. Look for it in April 2013 from Margaret K. McElderry Books / Simon & Schuster. Connect with Claire on her website, Twitter, or Facebook page.
image: painting by Peter Paul Rubens of himself and family, 1630s, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public domain.