No decent person would say such a thing!

I started reading Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams Distortions by Lucy Hughes-Hallett this weekend, and I’m already hooked. The book discusses how Cleopatra’s been portrayed over the centuries, and the chapter I’m in shows how Octavius skilfully managed her image to build support in Rome for his civil war with Marc Antony. By implying that Antony had been reduced to Cleopatra’s puppet, Octavius played on contemporary images of how men and women should behave (men are dominant, women submit and shut up) to paint Cleopatra as an unnatural, corrupt bitch and Antony as her gelding slave.
Reading about the Roman perception of women, I began wondering how I’d write a protagonist in that period who shared Octavius’ view—which most people did, but which I find quite repulsive.
I have the same problem in Brain From Outer Space: While my protagonists’ attitudes on race are less liberal than mine, I can’t bring myself to write them as outright racists, even though some of them, given that it’s the 1950s, probably would be. But at least some people in that era had enlightened racial attitudes; writing in a time when nobody would have challenged the view of women (or many other attitudes of the time) is a lot more challenging. The same would be true of writing a Christian protagonist back in the day when Christians assumed Jews were Jesus killers who baked children’s blood into their passover bread.
The standard solutions are to give characters anachronistic attitudes; sidestep the issues; let the character Learn Their Lesson; or pick something the audience won’t object to too much. A sexist hero, for example, is much less objectionable than a racist one (I don’t think that’s a good thing, but I believe it’s true).
Or, for some writers, the solution is to forge ahead and write heroes who really are (by today’s standards) fatally flawed in their views. I don’t know if I’ll ever be one of them but I’m impressed by people who can make it work.

2 Comments

Filed under Writing

2 responses to “No decent person would say such a thing!

  1. Pingback: 10 years ago today, I started this blog | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Happy birthday to me, and to my blog! | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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