I’ve always assumed that emotion is something that’s constant, regardless of the time period. After all, won’t people always be happy when they receive a sudden windfall, or sad when their loved ones die? On the most basic level, yes. But the issue is a little deeper than that.
While I believe that basic human emotions have been the same throughout all of history, the ways in which people express them have not. An expert on the ancient world recently brought it to my attention that, in ancient Greece, it was perfectly acceptable for men to cry. So if you wrote a scene in which a Greek boy was crying and feeling ashamed about it, that wouldn’t be historically accurate. Similarly, the loss of a young child was a very common event in colonial America. Of course 17th century parents grieved when their children died, but did they express their grief in the same way that parents experiencing a similar loss today would? Probably not.
The truth is that most of us are used to the societal norms of 21st century America, and we have to be careful not to force those norms into historical time periods. We live in a world where men don’t cry and the loss of a child is a rare event—but that doesn’t mean the world was always that way. The lesson here? Learn the societal norms of the time period you’re writing about, and make sure your characters respond to their all-too-universal emotions in an appropriate way.
How important is it to look at societal norms in historical fiction, and how can you find out about them? Have you come across any that are especially startling to 21st century Americans?
Melissa L. is the YA Editorial Assistant for Wonders and Marvels. You can read more about her here: Editorial Staff.