Writing social values in historical fantasy fiction

(By David Craig)

One of the potential pitfalls of writing fiction in certain periods is how to acknowledge social values no longer compatible with contemporary values. With fiction set in the 19th century, there runs the risk of glorifying imperialism/colonialism. Does the writer give their protagonists modern social values with regards to issues like racism/sexism/feminism etc? To do so runs the risk of losing the reader’s sense of immersion. To ignore these issues altogether risks ‘whitewashing’ history or hand-waving over certain demographics being second-class citizens. Homosexuality was a crime, and certain ethnic groups faced persecution and even genocide. But to give the protagonists period values risks alienating them from the reader. Or attracting an unsavoury reader-base.

These were concerns I had when writing Resurrection Men http://bit.ly/ResurrectionMen , a gothic/historical urban fantasy/supernatural mystery set in 1893 Glasgow. Glasgow’s location on the west coast, served by a large river, led to it being heavily involved in trade (such as tobacco) with the American colonies pre-revolution. In the following century it was heavily involved in industries such as shipbuilding and the textile industry, and was known as the 2nd City of the British Empire. The Irish potato famine and the Highland Clearances led to a large influx of immigrants desperate for homes and work.

There are streets today still named after people involved in the slave trade, or plantation locations (Glassford Street, Jamaica Street, Virginia Street).
(On the flip side, James McCune Smith, the first African American to hold a medical degree earned it at Glasgow University in 1837. And in 1986, Glasgow demonstrated its support for ending South African apartheid by naming a street after then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela – ‘coincidently’ the same street the South African Consulate was located on, to their considerable ire. I’m sure they loved having his name in their address.)

Including active, interesting female characters in a time and place where women had little agency was challenging, but doable. A powerful undead female character isn’t an issue, as giving her disrespect is pretty much suicide-by-vampire. My solution for mortal female characters not capable of separating a misogynist’s head from his shoulders with their bare hands was Lady Delaney. Independently wealthy, she has spent a couple of decades quietly fighting the undead and their servants, driven by vengeance. In part sexism aids her, as a woman would not be thought a likely insurgent in the eyes of the (mostly male) secret society running the city on behalf of the undead. Indeed, she takes a leadership role later in the novel, overriding her male companions’ objections by pointing out she’s the most experienced, and the one with the resources to carry out their mission; if they don’t like it, they can walk to their destination.

A minor female protagonist (Kerry) is introduced to the supernatural world and plays a much larger role in the in-progress sequel. In Resurrection Men she’s forbidden to take part in a mission due to her inexperience, but the reader should be able to discern the double-standards in that a male protagonist takes part despite having little fighting experience either.

Which takes us to toxic masculinity. I didn’t consciously set out to address this but found myself indirectly referencing it. As a man, the above mentioned inexperienced male protagonist (Hunt) is expected to fight, despite being untrained. Several times in the novel I use this character to highlight the effect danger can have on people new to dangerous situations; fear and adrenalin can affect the mind and decision-making. But he’s a man, so he’s expected to fight and would lose face in declining.

Male toxicity is further explored in the friendship between the above protagonist, Hunt, and his friend Foley. Hunt knows Foley has issues (what we would recognise now as depression, including suicidal thoughts) but they never discuss it. Foley self-medicates with alcohol and laudanum, which Hunt knows but again lets continue unremarked. Later, Hunt suffers through traumatic events, but this is never addressed by the characters. Again, alcohol is seen as the cure. Both Hunt and Foley are aware of the other’s issues, but the notion that men should be strong and not discuss their problems is prevalent, leading to substance misuse.

Homosexuality. Sexuality isn’t explored to any great extent in the novel, but homosexuality is slightly referenced through two characters. The first is a fairly minor character, rumoured to be gay, largely due to being unmarried, active and owning a big house. He’s quite big in the social scene, sociable, assumed to be very wealthy, so the natural assumption at that time would be that if he’s not married then he doesn’t like women. The character’s sexuality is never confirmed; he may or may not be gay, but regardless, there are a couple of explanations for him being unmarried (spoilers, so I won’t go into them but feel free to privately message me if interested). A secondary protagonist is also indirectly inferred to be gay (or perhaps bisexual), but this is not explored or confirmed in Resurrection Men. It is something that may resurface in the sequels, if it serves the plot or character development. Most of the other characters are too busy for romance, so their own orientations are unknown.

Prejudice. At that time there was a lot of prejudice against Irish immigrants and Catholicism (a sectarian divide which still troubles the west of Scotland today). These prejudices are mentioned in the book, and if not challenged by any of the characters, the reader can make their own judgements. A character displays prejudice towards ‘gypsies’ (Irish travellers) which while not directly challenged, leads to this character being blinded to the real threat.

While many of the characters live a relatively comfortable life, some enjoying a very privileged life, I made sure to highlight the vast divide between the rich and poor of Glasgow, describing in some detail the awful conditions endured by most of the people at that time. The minor female protagonist (Kerry) referenced above is from a poor background, and in the sequel we see the social inequality through her eyes. The sequel also explores the exploitation of child labour that was endemic in Victorian Glasgow. A consequence of the failed 18th century Jacobite uprisings was the persecution/destruction of Highland communities, and this is also explored in the sequel. How successful I’ve been is for each reader to decide.

For any writers reading this, did you find yourself with a similar problem writing characters in a time with different values, wanting to keep them true to the time but still sympathetic? For the readers, what books do you feel did this well, or perhaps not so well?


-David Craig