How to Handle Modern Day Sensibilities in Historical Fiction

The year is almost over, and it occurred to me I’ve never covered the topic of modern sensibilities. You know what I mean, right? Well, if you don’t, let me break it down for you.

While our stories have historical settings that sweep us away, many of our characters usually have modern sensibilities, or ways of approaching the world.  

Why do our characters have modern sensibilities?

Well there are a couple of reasons why. First of all, you’re writing for a modern audience. If your characters, particularly your protagonist, adopted all the sensibilities of the story setting, they would probably be very unlikable. Most people had very different social norms as little as sixty years ago. So things like interracial dating, pre-marital sex, multiculturalism, women working outside the home after marriage, and women wearing pants, were controversial. (And yes, I do know there were pockets of society that were doing all those things, even in the 1950s. The point here is to talk about perceived societal norms, nationally.)

Second, unless your story uses those traditional social norms as part of the stories theme, why even make it a big deal? For example, in ancient Greece, people actually believed that a relationship existed between beauty and morality. That ugliness on the outside reflected ugliness on the inside. But how does this relate to your historical YA about a girl growing up in Athens wanting to learn how to read? How does this effect your kick ass manuscript about the Peloponnesian War? It doesn’t so don’t worry about it.

So what do you do? My test question is, Does this affect the plot or my character’s arc? If the answer is no, then ignore it. Or, if you really want to deal with it, try the following;

Make fun of it.

Amelia Peabody is the wife to a prominent Egyptologist in Elizabeth Peters historical mystery series. Amelia lives throughout the mid and late Victorian period. She is almost radical in her beliefs about women’s equality but is quite normal for our period. (So is her husband) But the author plays up their upper middle-class background and sensibilities by giving us a scene in an early book where they have afternoon tea in 110 degree Egypt. Hot tea, melting butter and warm scones – in the hot Egyptian desert. Clearly the author is making fun of British sensibilities.

Highlight how your character is different.

This is a good way to show your protagonists moral character. In Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, the title character shows a level of respect and tenderness for a Jewish woman named Rebecca that was historically inaccurate. In addition, Rebecca herself is a courageous woman who stands up for herself and her people. These are admiral traits, but historically, not realistic. But who cares? It’s a great story. Both Ivanhoe and Rebecca capture the imagination of the reader because they are so different from the time period.

Ignore it, all together.

Seriously. If it doesn’t have anything to do with your plot or your character arcs, why include it? If you’re writing a historical romance about a princess and an accountant, and they end up making love all over your book, this is probably not historically accurate. (Not that people didn’t have sex, but things get antsy for women of high rank doing it. Remember, Henry VIII’s wife Catherine Howard was executed for having an affair and Mary, Queen of Scots BF started a civil war.) None of that matters if it’s a good story.

Finally, you could do all of the above in interesting and subtle ways. But that’s up to you. Just remember that the story is the most important thing.

Have fun writing.


Jason Henry Evans: Life is funny. In 2004 I moved from Los Angeles to Denver, newly married with a desire to be a great teacher and husband. I dedicated myself to public education and realized my heart was not in it. So I moved on. At the same time I stumbled into a creative world of art and literature I now call home. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been worthwhile.
You can catch up with Jason on his Facebook Author Page or on Twitter. You will also find up to date posts on his blog.