"It was a different time." Ugh, I hate that lazy, lazy phrase. People use it to excuse bad behavior instead of calling out past wrongs. Looking at the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and the release of Black Panther, a predominantly POC cast big-budget film, it's clear people have come to (and more are continuing to) expect more. We expect people to behave better than they used to, to be more inclusive, and to be held accountable when they don't. Get ready, folks, because I'm about to get really... real. Yup, smooth as always.
You know how art imitates life? The same thing is happening with entertainment. People, myself included, are tired of lowering our standards and settling for whatever some rando in a distant boardroom thinks will make a bunch of money or whatever. Look at the backlash from Ghost in the Shell, Iron Fist, and Gods of Egypt about whitewashing in Hollywood. And that's just recent history. Fantasy books are especially bad about having predominantly or even entirely white casts. I've seen so many people in the bookish community calling for a change to this. A world comprised entirely of white people isn't realistic, because melanin. Look it up. Anyway, being "woke", or awake if you're Captain Holt from Brooklyn 99, isn't new.
Throughout history, as people have been mistreated, other people have spoken up and said, "Nope. This is not okay." So crappy things were more widely accepted in the past. Not as many people saw those crappy things as a problem. And? Let's call a spade a spade. If someone is being treated poorly for their gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, etc., it is wrong. I don't care what time period you're in.
Given history and all its ugliness, we writers have a worthy challenge to create period stories that are both accurate and relatable to modern audiences, stories that don't excuse people's ignorant views because "it was a different time." And, honestly, I don't think it's as difficult as some people might assume. To be clear, I am by no means encouraging anyone to gloss over history and pretend events didn't happen or that people didn't act the way they acted. I firmly believe you can preserve the details of history and the integrity of your characters.
Note: I'm not going to address issues specific to the fantasy and paranormal genres - magic, vampires, etc. - because those aren't issues that affect real people in very real ways everyday in the real world. Okay? I'm a woman, so I struggle against the institutional, systematic sexism in our world and, consequently, that's where most of my examples come from. I'm white, though, so I am also privileged because I don't have to struggle against any of the institutional, systematic racism that also exists everywhere. None of us have to deal with being born with magic, though, so it's getting left out of today's blog entry. Right, let's dig in.
Hero Struggles - Your good guys cannot and should not be perfect. If they are, they won't come off as realistic or relatable. I hesitate to use the word flaws because some characters will struggle against things, such as anxiety or disabilities, which are not flaws. For the record, having a main character who is differently-abled in some way would create some of the inclusivity I mentioned earlier. Similarly, there are some personality traits that can be both helpful and harmful, like ambition. Your heroes should definitely have darkness within them, though. They should struggle with questions of right and wrong and have to make difficult decisions. As the author, you get to choose their struggles and shortcomings. But choose well. Specifically, if your main character is a mansplaining racist, your readers might end up rooting for the villain, or worse, quitting you completely as an author. Remember the people I mentioned earlier who stood up and said, "This is not okay"? Yeah, those are the good guys. It doesn't take away from the realism of your main character to get this vital aspect right.
There are a lot of really interesting moral quagmires for your characters to navigate without making them into sexist/racist a-holes. This is getting off the topic of historical accuracy, I know, but look at Marvel's Civil War. You’ve got murder, brainwashing, corruption, guilt, responsibility, consequences, and loyalty all playing off one another at different angles. Both sides make valid points, and the film blew up the box office. There's an endless list of things for your characters to struggle with, but we've had more than enough bigots in both fiction and real life. Don't add your good guys to that list.
Baddies - On the other hand, bigotry is a fine trait for villains to have. I mean, it's pretty universally understood (save for some folks who like to rally whilst carrying tiki torches) that the Nazis were the bad guys, and Hitler was the worst. That whole master race idea, also terrible. You don't have to choose that as the thing that makes your bad guys bad, but it's a pretty easy get. There's a tricky side to that too, though. You know how you need to give your villains motives just like you do for your good guys? Evil always has a root whether it's pain, pride, greed, etc., but do not normalize, rationalize, or excuse their bigotry. Again, I don't care what timeframe you're in, nor do I care for your reasons. That sort of behavior is not acceptable.
Of course, what traits and motives and backgrounds you choose for both your good and bad guys should also fit with the story you're trying to tell. I know there might be some people out there who would say, "But what if my hero's struggle is being sexist/a racist?" Well, to that I say it's your story, your decision in the end, but you're going to make life a lot harder for yourself because more and more people are getting tired of others normalizing and making excuses for that behavior, myself included. I've altogether stopped reading authors who treat their female characters as props to advance the male's story. And anything that normalizes, glorifies, or tries to make rape sexy is right out the window for me. You're going to make it more difficult for readers to like or relate to your characters, especially since bigotry affects such broad swaths of the population. If you do decide to go that route, I recommend you 1) don't drag that particular struggle out, giving it no more than one book, and 2) let people know ahead of time in the blurb and front and back book descriptions that that's the issue the main character struggles with. Are you worried people won't buy the book if you do that? Well, that's my whole point about it not being relatable to modern audiences. If it's something you have to hide from people to make sure they don't get turned off, there's a problem. A big one.
Use Subtext - Actions speak louder than words is something I got told all the time while growing up. Example: you spill your drink across someone's floor, apologize to them, and then leave it there. That does not communicate sincere remorse. The same goes for your characters. This is especially important for authors who feel like it wouldn't be historically accurate for their characters to come right out and talk about equality or explain about melanin or any of the other verbal arguments they could make. And there could be lots of reasons for this, whether it's a disability like being mute, the timeframe isn't conducive to it, or the required vernacular doesn't fit. Whatever the case, your characters' actions should support their stances as much if not more than their words.
You can create subtext using dialogue in a different way, though. Your characters may not come out and say, “Hey, you shouldn’t treat women that way, you chauvinist pig!” but other statements (or lack thereof) can subtly empower or show respect for those around them. Let's say your book is set in the 1920s, and your main character is a typical, hard-boiled, white-dude PI. His client and temporary sidekick is a well-known journalist, infamous for being both a woman and extremely tenacious. She's also secretly a lesbian and has hired the PI to investigate the murder of her brother, who had been climbing the political ladder. News of her relationship with another woman has just gotten out. "How do you wanna handle it?" asks the Police Chief who's also investigating the crime. Your PI main character could respond, "Why're ya asking me? Try again. Maybe with the person it actually affects, yeah?" And then he lights up a cigarette. See? No big, dramatic speeches, but he (in a position of privilege and authority) recognizes her status as an equal human being with the ability and the right to handle herself. Sometimes, handing over the reins and giving someone else a voice is just as powerful as speaking up for them, if not more so.
Character Demographics - Look, there's a lot of controversy about who should and shouldn't write characters with certain traits or from certain backgrounds. I don't really have much to say regarding this debate because, to be honest, I don't know what I personally think the best answer is. Maybe it's a case-by case basis thing? I dunno. Anyway, one thing I definitely do know is that there needs to be better representation in fiction. Period. There just isn't a realistic amount of diversity in mainstream publishing, and representation matters because it encourages people and tells them, yes, you are important, you do have a voice, and your history/stories are meaningful. Whatever time period and characters you to decide to write, research the crap out of it! Do not, I repeat, do not rely on TV and movies because all you will get are bad stereotypes. And stereotypes are the devil.
I'll use myself as an anti-stereotype example. No, I did not look hotter when I took my glasses off (before I got LASIK). I looked confused and annoyed because I couldn't see! No, I do not want children, and no, I'm not going to change my mind when I'm older. Why? Because I, as I said, I don't want them, and I'm certainly not going to regret it. No, I don't like shopping for clothes, especially jeans. Women come in more than three shapes, you know. And, no, if you give me a makeover, I will not suddenly become a more valuable or worthy person. And the list of stereotypes about every group goes on and on. Do. Not. Do. Them.
Get Feedback - Finally, as with all writing, make sure your beta readers are a diverse bunch. I've done some beta reads of period fiction that shocked me. Not by how good they were, but how sexist some of the scenes were and how clueless the author seemed about what it's like to be a woman. If you have POC characters, be sure to get feedback from someone with that same background, or as close as you possibly can. Same with differently-abled people, and so on.
All in all, writing period fiction that modern audiences will connect with is as much about what you don't do as what you do. I highly doubt anyone will read you book and go, "Wait a minute. Why didn't I ever see the MC being a racist/sexist? That doesn't seem correct for that era!" Thanks for reading!