Getting into the minds of characters in historical or speculative fiction

Sometimes, I get unexpected real-world insights from imagining strange life forms, environments, and cultures from a world or time different from our own. To hypothesize alternate lives is to test our assumptions and beliefs against vastly different ones, so revelations are inevitable.

Throughout life, every time we reveal a belief as a choice, experience, or delusion, we get just a little closer to truth, and for me, that’s the purpose of speculative fiction. In imagining strange hypotheticals, I discover people whose lives have led them to very different morals, values, perceptions, and fundamental beliefs. These sorts of explorations, by necessity, broaden my understanding of what it could mean to be human or to behave in a society.

World-building is fun for me, not because we get to decide where a mountain range goes or even because we get to make that mountain range a hellish inferno of lava and smoke that stretches a mile into the sky, but because we can explore how a society living in or near that mountain range might look, believe, and behave. What myths or religions might form? What forms of life might we find? What might that mean for people’s food choices? What customs and rituals might arise around the practices of hunting and cooking?

Every choice I make along the way ripples outward, affecting every other choice. For example, imagine that there are two societies near this monstrous volcanic mountain range we’ve created. One believes it is the spine of a perpetually dying goddess, powerful and dangerous but loving, sacrificing herself for the people, spewing her molten essence to bring nutrients to the soil and to provide warmth to this otherwise frigid land. Another society believes the Earth has become angry, and they must offer sacrifices to appease it, lest it destroy their village in a violent conflagration.

How might the religions of these societies differ? How might they view the other life forms living around them? How might each society view the other? Which is closer to the truth, or are both gripped by delusion? To write this, we must imagine ourselves as members of both societies. We may find it easy to imagine human sacrifice happening, but difficult to empathize with the mind of a pious pagan priest who feels certain that sacrifice is the only ethical choice.

If we’re to inhabit characters in this world, we must be willing and able to suspend our own beliefs for a moment, including our ethics, and adopt those of this society and individual. And sometimes, when we’re lucky, we might realize our own morals or beliefs have been flawed or limited, and that means we get to choose better. But it requires the uncomfortable work of obliterating ourselves for a time to become someone else.

The further outward our fiction explores from our familiar world, the more difficult it becomes to inhabit the minds of our characters. If I write characters based on myself and my friends in a contemporary setting, I don’t have to think very hard about how we might respond to imaginary situations. I have to take more time if I write a character of a different culture or religion. Historical fiction takes me further, and speculative fiction lies at the furthest end of this spectrum. This is where we may have to ask questions like: how might a person born with magic abilities, raised in an alien culture, deal with grief? Even if the essential feeling of grief is identical to my own, this character will explain it and cope with it very differently.

The difficulties of philosophy in historical or speculative fiction

It’s relatively simple to avoid anachronisms in the physical world of your story. In a story from the past, this might mean gas lamps instead of electric lights. Chamber pots instead of plumbing. Horses and walking instead of cars and planes. Blurry vision instead of corrective lenses. But we rarely think about how people of different times and places might think. Ideas we take for granted may not yet exist in your story’s time and location, or they may exist differently.

The history of philosophy has fascinated me since college. I chose it as a major because I was interested in the ideas themselves, but I became more interested in how those ideas are born, evolve, and are adopted by the population, often becoming so ingrained in the public consciousness that we don’t realize they’re inventions at all. We can trace many of these ideas to a specific philosopher at a specific time in our history, when the idea rippled through religion, government, and culture, forever changing the way humans collectively lived and believed.

For example, I remember hearing this argument in middle school: “I don’t know if God exists, but I believe anyway. Better safe than sorry!” Years later, I learned this was a simplified way of expressing Pascal’s Wager. I was hearing it casually expressed by a middle school kid, but in Blaise Pascal’s time, the idea was revolutionary. There are similar arguments that predate Pascal, but he brought the idea into the public consciousness. So if you’re writing historical fiction set in the 14th century, it’s doubtful your characters would think of belief in God as the ultimate gamble.

If you set your story in 600 BC, before Plato, would anyone speak of eternal souls that exist separate from the physical body? Would anyone organize life into hierarchical taxonomies before Aristotle? Would people make demands for individual liberty before Thomas Hobbes and John Locke?

We must consider all of this when we have characters dealing with issues of fairness, freedom, free will, duty, gender roles, parenting, relationships, aesthetics, body image, manners, epistemology, and what constitutes the good life.

And to add yet another complication, we have to consider not only an idea’s existence but its connotations, which often evolve. Communism became an evil word provoking visceral contempt in the West when it became the ideology of an enemy with nuclear weapons. Many words trigger spontaneous positive or negative feelings, but didn’t always. Connotations evolve. We have to be careful that our modern and cultural connotations don’t become anachronisms in our speculative or historical works. It’s fine to make some mistakes, but the effort to correct them deepens the work.

My difficulty with romance

In a current project, I had a realization that forced me to rethink fundamental elements of the story.

I’m writing about a culture that is technologically and philosophically pre-medieval. As I write it, I’m constantly humbled and enlightened as I discover my modern biases affecting the behaviors of my characters.

I thought I had worked through most of these difficulties but discovered that some of my characters were celebrating romance in a way that was far too modern. The celebration of and reverence toward romantic love and chivalry was born in the Middle Ages, spawning the earliest examples of lyrical poetry expressing the youthful depths of yearning and the extravagant rituals of courtship that we now take for granted.

If we explored the past with a time machine, we would likely find that Aristotle did not spend his days writing sonnets, singing serenades, or placing his jacket over puddles, overcoming all obstacles to court his beloved. He likely would not speak of his desire to find his soulmate. The love he feels would be the same, but the way he expresses it would be very different. He might act in ways we would describe today as chivalrous, but nobody would expect it as a cultural norm.

By changing how I approached love in my story, it changed my understanding of how we experience love in our lives. The feeling and the need for love are written into our genes, deeply instinctive and permanent, perpetuating the species and making us feel whole. That love is unbounded and unexplainable. To describe it is to diminish it.

Yet we seek the romantic, sentimental, idealized love our culture has taught is the correct kind. If we were born into another culture, we might decorate the desire for love differently.

To hold my own experience in mind while also looking inside the mind of someone very different helps me find our essential commonalities and understand what parts of our experience are extraneous decorations.

The beauty in this problem

I discover these mistakes throughout my story-writing process. It’s a constant source of difficulty—and sometimes frustration—as I have to rewrite with each revelation. But every time this happens, my story gets stronger, deeper, and more interesting. Somehow, as the world I’m creating becomes more alien, it also becomes more real, because it’s illuminating the deeper truths of the human condition.

In removing familiar, modern love rituals from my story, I worried that people wouldn’t relate to the characters in the same way. But as I rewired my story to accommodate new ways for the characters to approach love, I realized just how arbitrary those things are. Two people can feel strongly for one another without our tendency toward a particular ceremony of courtship and romance. At our deepest emotional level, we just want to love and to feel loved. Identifying what matters in my story helped reveal something about life.

Culturally prescribed rituals, mostly unconscious and rarely evaluated, fill our lives. These rituals seem necessary for us to function as individuals and as a society. We’re constantly trying to make “sense” of our emotions, so we turn them into behaviors and stories we can understand. We need those stories, but we also need occasional reminders that these are cultural fictions we’ve chosen to live by.

When you strip away the stories and rituals, you’re exposing something vulnerable within, and it feels dangerous. But if we’re to empathize with other people, real or imaginary, we must do that because we can’t inhabit the reality of another and discover their unique ways of interacting with emotions and experiences until we’ve suspended our own unique ways of doing so.

I’m convinced that the difference between a good storyteller and a great storyteller is the ability to dive deep into the psychology of a person of a very different life experience and understand them. Then be willing to let those characters evolve as you get to know them better, even if it means regular rewriting.