It’s a problem that any historical author faces–or should do if they are doing their job and their research.
We all know that life wasn’t terribly political correct in times other than ours. I shall skirt around the fact that political correctness can be a) rather subjective and b) still a problem today.
But go back, even a very short time and you have to deal with all sorts of problems.
Mad Men, that wonderful American TV series, handles this perfectly in my opinion. It’s not that far back – set in the early 1960’s in the cut-and-thrust world of New York Advertising. The discrimination is intense: blacks, gays, Jews, women, the poor – the list is almost endless. In a way, it’s similar to the English aristocracy – there are the elite ad men, and then there is “everyone else” who are some kind of sub-set of humans.
Mad Men does it by handling it head on, and then letting the viewer deal with these very real people in their own way, letting them decide for themselves whether they are going to emphasize with the characters or not.
Take Don, the lead male character: He’s actually from a dirt-poor background. Son of a whore, raised by a succession of “fathers” and escaped to the army as soon as he could get away. He hides this background and in fact isn’t “Don Draper” at all – he swapped his identity with the real Draper, an officer he was working with and was blown to smithereens. Being an invalided ex-officer his world opened up, and he was able to better himself, and now he’s the brightest star on Madison Avenue. But his bosses, his friends, and even his wife think he’s someone he’s not.
There’s a lot to make Don unattractive as a main character. He – like many others on the show – are serial womanisers. The creators of the show however, blur this infidelity by having him “faithfully unfaithful” if you see what I mean – he’s searching for a soul-mate and gets very involved with his mistresses. He has many many issues, and he can often only unburden his secrets on someone who’s on the outside of his “real” (but yet unreal) life.
So what does he have that makes him an attractive character?
He’s a little more liberal than many of his co-workers. It’s not that he’s a rainbow flag-waving, feminist supporting character–far from it–he’s every bit as bigoted in many ways, and in a crowd of people spouting bigoted comments he’ll not be arguing–but he won’t be joining in. He appreciates talent over other “obstacles” in that business. He encourages Peggy (his assistant) when she shows talent in copy writing and puts her on the path to being the first woman copy writer in his firm. He knows that Sal, a closeted, married homosexual is what he is, and despite catching him in a compromising position with another man says nothing because Sal is a damned good head of Art.
Yes, he has many many problems, but the writers heap so many problems and give him so many past problems and issues that you have the choice to root for him or to yell “and well deserved!” I’m sure there are many viewers who dislike Dan as much as I like him, but it’s so cleverly done that love him or loathe him, you can’t stop watching.
And I think there’s much to be learned. What I do see in some historical romance is the writer is determined that their characters have to be likeable at all costs. And if they are wealthy (which most characters are, I find!) or if they are in a profession such as the navy–most authors will skim over the more…unpleasant aspects that this entails.
Many of the super rich in the 17th and 18th centuries did it by their “estates in America” which meant using slaves. Many were actual slavers, despite the fact that slavery didn’t exist in England itself. Naval officers might have had to accompany slave ships from A to B. Women were second class citizens with no rights to own property or vote. Jews were not considered “one of us” no matter how high they might rise in society, and as for the Europeans? Best not to ask what an English man thought of the Irish, the French, the Spanish…
Make your hero too liberal, too good, too accepting, and you’ll be accused of blatant anachronism which is just as bad as having a big fat Gary Stu. There are too many heroines in heterosexual romance who are cheeking their fathers, refusing to marry for convenience, treating the servants/slaves like equals, getting an education, forging their own path through life and being generally unbelievable that the last thing I’d like to see is a similar trope appearing in gay historicals.
So how do you create that balance? It’s not easy.
I’ll start, if I may, with one of my own characters. Rafe Goshawk from “Standish”.
The man has issues. He’s hugely rich, and his money comes from many dodgy sources. Slavery? Probably. Gun running? So he says. War profiteering? Most certainly. When we meet him, he’s an arrogant arse who takes what he wants and finds that everything can be bought. Even Ambrose comes to work for him, despite loathing the very idea of him, because enough money is waved under his nose. There’s not a lot to like. But hopefully, as his story unfolds, we find that there are explanations from much of his behaviour and hopefully the reader warms to him eventually. I’m gratified actually that many readers weren’t won over by him, and about 25% of readers (who expressed a preference, to use an advertising term!) wish that Rafe had faded away or died and that Ambrose had ended up with Fleury.
What’s interesting is that Fleury is also a truly awful person. (I think Ambrose has some kind of problem with the men he picks!) Fleury’s a murderer, a highwayman, a rogue with a lash-out brutality that terrifies the entire population of Newgate prison–I didn’t hide Fleury’s true nature and yet readers loved him and want more. Go figure.
To pick another character–take Jacob Cullen from Maria McAnn’s superb English Civil War novel “As Meat Loves Salt.” A man who has — as I say in the review — no redeeming qualities at all save that for his love for another man, and yet for me, and I’m sure many readers, he’s a character that I was hoping and praying would find his happy ending, although I was pretty sure he wouldn’t.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have Charlie Cochrane’s Cambridge Fellows: Orlando and Jonty in her mystery series. Both men are “jolly good eggs” – they are affectionate, have varying degrees of filial love and loyalty, believe in Blighty and the College, are almost unfailingly polite to women and lessers and all round Nice Chaps. In another writer’s hands, perhaps, they would be just to saccharine to stand, but to balance their niceness, Charlie gives them very human foibles and hidden layers: jealousy, temptation, lust, anger, back-histories, and back boyfriends which affect their present, uncertainty, insecurity–just to name a few. They aren’t Gary Stus, despite their charm and talent for solving mysteries, they are real men, struggling with real problems.
Chris Smith’s protagonist–Edgar Vaughn–in her upcoming novella “The White Empire” is frankly awful at first sight. He’s pompous, vain, rude, arrogant and a huge hypocrite. But he’s true to the time, and to his class. He considers the Chinese as a lesser race than the English, he’s rude to women and to people he considers “trade.” But he sees injustice, and the exploitation of a way of life, and takes the British Empire on head on. No matter how he strikes the reader to start with, they’ve got to be impressed with the man’s sheer courage to take on the might of Britain single handed.
Another good example that comes to mind is Pieter Van Leyden from “Cane” by Stevie Woods. Yes, he’s veering towards “too good” – he falls in love with a slave, and he does good work for his own slaves, but he still benefits from his inherited wealth and he recognises his limitations fighting the system.
So don’t shy from the issues of the day. Don’t be cowed by criticisms that “if your characters think this way, it means you must think this way” because that’s errant bilge. Don’t make your hero too good no matter how tempting it is. He can still appreciate the injustice of the world around him without becoming a campaigner. (make him a campaigner if you must, but don’t make it easy for him.) Give him as many flaws as well as he has virtues and beliefs and if you balance it right you’ll find the reader will love him, no matter how many awful things he does.