Creating Authentic Historic Characters: Portraying Racism as A Fact of Life

My current project, for those who have been following this blog, is a crime-comedy set in a small fictional Cornish town on Land’s End AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). It’s a town occupied almost entirely by ghosts and one retired former DI from Cambridge.

I decided early that the ghosts would come from all periods. So far, I have introduced a woman whose husband died aboard HMS Hood in 1941, a pirate, a medieval monk and a shopkeeper from the early 19th century. One thing that I think needs to be handled delicately is social attitudes of these returned characters – such as how people in the past thought about other races and nationalities, disability, sexism and other issues today where we might differ vastly.

By Brantz Mayer – Own work by the original uploader, Public Domain,

I think, no matter what we do when handling these delicate subjects, it will upset someone. Do we play it down and make people a bit more modern in their attitudes? Then we stand accused of belittling suffering of people in the past in order not to offend the sensibilities of the majority who many not want to be reminded of past transgressions. If we play it up, we are in danger of moralising about something that it is not relevant to the plot. If we treat it as a fact of life, we run the risk of accusations of passive acceptance or indifference to the social issue – which is probably not the case at all.

I want to address issues such as nationalism, racism and even slavery but treat them as a fact of life (which it would be for the people involved) without passing commentary. I’m not sure that’s quite so easy to do without harshly judging a character who might otherwise be a decent person. Hindsight is a great thing, and attitudes that we would find distasteful today would have been the norm in past periods – we need to recognise that – and they would not  have been judged then for holding views we unacceptable today.

One particular example I have written so far is the shopkeeper who laments that his daughter (also returned from the dead) has got too comfortable with 21st century life, she wants to go on dates with the ghost boys in the village, she wants a mobile phone and she wants to drink in the pub. This frustrates her father who is firmly stuck in the 1830s – the decade they both died of cholera. It’s important to remember the year they died was 25 years since the Slave Trade Act, which suppressed the Slave Trade in the British Colonies (but didn’t abolish it). Total Abolition would come in 1833 and the movement have been building for years so it’s likely he had an opinion one way or the other on slavery.

The shop owner is a social conservative and in 1832, that is likely to mean having attitudes that we would consider racist, sexist and bigoted by our standards. Though I have not discussed slavery even though it would be a hot topic for this character, I have mentioned his distaste for foreign influences on the English language – particularly from the “Mohammedians and pagans” of the Indian subcontinent. That’s about as racist as it gets at the moment, but it did make me ponder as to how to handle his (what would be to us) borderline or fully racist attitudes.

Has anybody else pondered this question? What was your outcome and experiences or did you avoid presenting attitudes from the past we might find distasteful today?


11 thoughts on “Creating Authentic Historic Characters: Portraying Racism as A Fact of Life

  1. Jools

    A difficult question indeed. I offer my own experience as food for thought. My first novel, Singled Out, is set on a singles holiday, where *some* guests size one another up, occasionally in language that most people would consider sexist. Before I self-published, I submitted the story to several agents. I was surprised at some of the feedback I received, which suggested that these particular agents felt I had written a sexist book… where I believed I had vividly created one or two fictional characters with outdated or sexist opinions. If you knew me personally, you’d understand why I baulked at the idea that I was in some way presenting those opinions and observations as my own! In aiming for realism, I had inadvertently ruffled the feathers of those agents who were, of course (and in their extensive experience) summing me up on the basis of a few lines of a character’s dialogue. I feel I may tread more cautiously next time.

    1. Hmm, that’s rather unfortunate. I am politically left so am keen to speak out against any form of bigotry – but that doesn’t mean such voices should be silenced. That would be rather Orwellian.

      On a side note, characters should never be purely a reflection of ourselves.

      Sometimes, people have these opinions in real life and it is not always all. they are. My 19th century shopkeeper for example has opinions that would have been fairly typical of the time. Hopefully my readership will be a bit more forgiving.

      1. Jools

        I think readers have been very positive. It was just the agent feedback which rather stopped me in my tracks. There’s only one real way to find out… go for it.

      2. Thanks, I intend to. I feel I can’t write a 19th century character without 19th century attitudes.

  2. N. E. White

    Hmmmm…probably not. (Referring to whether your readership will be forgiving.)

    Have you read Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series?

    I think Aaronovitch does a good job expressing obvious racism and sexism, but not condoning it. Someone will say or do something racist or sexist and another character (either the main character or someone else) *always* calls it out.

    Just an idea.

    1. I have read the first two and I do remember how he handled those attitudes. It’s realistic without encouraging people to judge those characters.

      I have been writing it again today and I did have my protagonist point out the contribution that immigrants have made to Britain without making it overly preachy.

  3. sandmanjazz

    The secret is probably to use terms which are deemed socially acceptable in each ghosts life time and how the characters respond to how the characters speak. I would possibly not go out on use of stronger racial and sexist slus of today. So for your 19th character perhaps look at the dialogue and linguistic prose style and dialogue of Rider Haggard and that sort of fiction, or even early 20th century fiction such as Buchan and Sapper.
    Alternatively, you come go the route of a colonial man settling abroad and his daughter is in his view going native, with the present day society being the foreign land and thus you could mix it in with as part of a general disdain of his new home and it’s people.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. So far, I have played it safe as you suggest. It’s worked so far, playing that happy medium between authenticity and what is socially acceptable.

      1. sandmanjazz

        Perhaps at moments of extreme agitation it would make sense to push it a little further, but it might be worth having the other side of how the present day may have an air of looking down their noses on the past.

      2. That might be a little trickier. My village has just one living human resident though he has attempted to reason with the character in question a couple of times.

        Thanks for your advice!

      3. sandmanjazz

        Ah fair enough.

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