Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The One Modern Man

I've noticed something while watching Instant Netflix a television show called Murdoch Mysteries. The story is set in the Victorian Toronto and the protagonist is a detective who employs modern forensic techniques to solve crimes. He is surrounded by barbarians who regard him as something of an oddball. We know these people are barbarians because each week some aspect of the Victorian culture we disapprove of is shoved in our face (e.g. racist, sexist, homophobic, environmentally insensitive, anti-papist or Tory).

And the One Modern ManTM happens to disapprove, too.

He has to reflect OUR biases and preferences, or we won't identify with him. I noticed this some years back when chatting with a friend who writes murder mysteries that are solved by Pliny the Younger and his faithful sidekick Tacitus. I heartily recommend his books.

If you disagree with Victorian mores, how about a society that is built upon slavery? How about a protagonist who owns slaves? A lot of slaves!

This creates a tension between the demands of the reading public and human nature. If you grow up with anything, you'll think it to be the natural state of things.

But the protagonist has to reflect OUR biases and preferences, or we won't identify with him. The hero must be the One Modern ManTM in the story. Ergo, Pliny manifests modern attitudes toward slavery.

This pattern should be kept in mind if your setting has a society with something, anything your reading audience finds revolting. In such a case, you need to make your protagonist the One Modern ManTM.


  1. I'm going to be the contrarian here. When I'm reading something set in a particular time, it often irks me to see a character whose attitudes and knowledge are impossible or highly unlikely. It's like John Wayne carrying a Winchester '92 in every western movie--those things weren't around before 1892. I can accept a character who struggles through the dominant worldview--say, a Huckleberry Finn--and reaches a new idea, but realism requires characters who belong in their periods.

  2. I've argued this very point. Yet there is a tension here between reader sensitivities and truly representing the times and the people. The art is in how you resolve that tension.

  3. In my college expository writing class, I was told that I had to know my audience. But then I heard Steven Spielberg say that he makes the movies that he wanted to see as a child. That's much better advice. I write things that I want to read. For me, if I'm writing about the past, I want realism--as much, at least, as someone in my day is able to create about days gone by. I do know that if I try to write to fit an imagined reader's view of things, what comes out feels forced.


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