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Discussion: Historically accurate female characters

Introduction: What I mean by “historically accurate”

To start with, if you’re looking for a blogger who holds up abused and poorly written female characters in historical fiction and says ‘at least they’re accurate’ then you’ve come to the wrong post. See yourself out if that’s something you agree with, and pull up a chair if not. When I say “historically accurate” I mean actually accurate representations of the diverse types of women present in real history. I mean queer women, black women, immigrant women, mothers, childless women, spinsters, married women, trans women, and many others. I am absolutely not referring to idealized and sexualized caricatures crafted by male authors to fantasize about.

Accuracy vs Perception

There’s a massive difference between well researched and actually accurate historical characters, and the perception of historical accuracy–especially in historical fiction that borders on fantasy, or historical fiction set in highly romanticized parts of the past. It’s not enough to research historical names and be able to describe clothing accurately; there are social factors that a lot of historians have researched but that aren’t common knowledge. While some historical fiction writers do engage in quite a bit of research, there are others that fall back to expected perceptions of historical time periods because they fit the story they’re trying to tell.

That being said, there were absolutely cases of violence and forced submission for women, as well as examples that led to the common perceptions of certain time periods. A realistic female character could be submitting to an arranged marriage, or resistant. I’m not trying to say that a female character that fits the mold of common perception or societal expectations is unrealistic. I am saying that it’s not unrealistic for a female character who crossdresses, learns “uncharacteristic” skills, or engages in a life of crime to exist in a historical time period.

Bad Tropes

There are plenty of bad tropes that are disguised as historical accuracy. I know I’ve talked about these a lot before, especially in regards to fantasy novels. These tropes include but are not limited to: gratuitous sexual violence, forced marriages for all women, love matches being rare, women engaging only in “traditionally feminine” activities, women being trafficked as currency, etc. These tropes are common in both fantasy with an historical edge and historical fiction. However, there is plenty of evidence for women who bucked the social expectations of their times, and whats more, the social expectations we have retroactively placed on the past.

Another factor to keep in mind is that historical fiction is just that, fiction. If the author attempts to convince you that their work is so meticulously researched it could serve as an educational text on the time period be incredibly wary. Fiction has long been utilized by racists, bigots, anti-semites, and other awful people to attempt to normalize and justify their disgusting views.

Final Thoughts

While I can and do appreciate a female heroine in a historical fiction that likes the feminine, it’s important to not fall back into stereotypes and negative views due to a perceived need for “historical accuracy.” Ultimately, historical fiction is fiction in the end. It’s absolutely the author’s right to imagine whatever crazy shenanigans the characters get up to. Putting gratuitous violence and rape, bigotry, irredeemable characters, and casting characters into stereotypes and caricatures under the guise of accuracy is just a lazy example of refusing to confront bias and open your eyes to change.

Ultimately the question of “accuracy” is raised when critics want an “aha!” moment to dislike something. We see this exemplified in high fantasy written by women, queer folk, and people of color. Black characters are written out of historical fiction despite their presence in history, and queer characters are considered unrealistic if their queerness is ever directly addressed. It’s hubris to believe that only the picture perfect whitewashed and straight laced narrative was accurate; in fact, it was the opposite. Until historical accuracy addresses the accuracy of all narratives, I don’t put much stock into authors who purport to present true historically accurate fiction.

This discussion was supposed to focus largely on the way female characters are presented in historical fiction, but to ignore the realities of women of color and queer women in this discussion would be ignorant and missing half the story. So many stories ignore women of color and queer women in the first place, which already places them in a poor position for supposed accuracy. Female characters in historical fiction should be as diverse as the reality, but there is absolutely an overwhelming focus on white women as heroines, protagonists, and love interests.

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By Catherine

I'm a lover of books, coffee, wine, and bees. Happy to join the ranks of book bloggers everywhere!

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