I recently came across a discussion on this old article from The Horn Book (a magazine which discusses literature for children and young adults).
The author, Anne Scott MacLeod, is quite critical of historical fiction authors who project modern sensibilities onto their characters—which raises a good question. Obviously anything we write is going to reflect our own times, at least to an extent. But is it possible to take this reflection too far in historical fiction? And if so, what is the breaking point?
MacLeod makes a good point when she points out that many authors give their characters modern, politically correct views rather than infusing them with the social norms of their time. For example, most people in seventeenth-century Massachusetts believed in witchcraft, but I’ve noticed that novels about the Salem witch trials almost invariably feature a main character who doesn’t.
While this phenomenon doesn’t necessarily bother me that much, it does perturb me that in many books, no one else cares about the main character’s unorthodox viewpoint. People may well have defied social norms at many points in the past, but more often than not, there would have been severe consequences for doing so—consequences that characters in historical novels seem to escape.
There are plenty of reasons why writers might want to give their characters these modern views: to make a story more interesting, to avoid subjecting much-loved character to beliefs that now seem woefully ignorant, to avoid alienating readers. But is it right to do so? MacLeod would definitely say no, and after reading her article, I’m beginning to wonder myself.
Melissa Luttmann is the YA Editorial Assistant for Wonders and Marvels. You can read more about her here: Editorial Staff.