My current project is historical fiction, fifteenth century. There were quite a few bad things happening all over the world, and my book picks up on a few of them.

With simply laying the information out, even in an interesting and entertaining way, I'm struggling with making disparaging remarks (certainly not in an omniscient way, but still) regarding the Church (this is pre-Reformation), Ottoman Turks (and hence, Muslims), Spaniards; the list goes on. The degree of human rights violations were profound globally.

So far, I'm taking the South Park approach: nobody gets a pass, everybody can be archetyped and turned into a tool, and the fictional aspects are mostly for comic relief.

However, as the story solidifies, I fear it is more entertaining for me to write than for others to read. Readers want heroes and victories, punishment to the villians.

My question is: As the negative events start to unfold, I'm creating villains. Which is fine for a purely fictional story, but I'm not wanting to alienate large segments of society. Are there other approaches beyond South Park? Or perhaps it's "Write a good story, and people won't care whose feet get stepped on"?

  • Try the Terry Pratchett approach. He once described rubberneckers as, "People who understood the value of free entertainment." Jan 17, 2016 at 9:30

4 Answers 4


Make the even the people you are blaming, likeable. People are doing bad things out of good reasons and good things out of bad reasons. And even if they do bad things out of bad reasons, the reasons might not be bad because they are bad people.

  • They might have been misinformed.
  • They might have been tricked.
  • They might have been stupid.
  • They might have been blinded by ideology.

Don't make them only the bad people. Make them full people, with hopes and fears, with likes and dislikes, with love and hate, with loyalty and disloyalty, who are acting sometimes stupid and sometimes smart and always in the boundaries of their own experience.

  • Thank you. I actually didn't like the way I asked the question, but yours is an excellent answer. (For the most part, it's what I'm doing.) I'll come up with a better question ...
    – Stu W
    Jan 16, 2016 at 23:05

In addition to the answer by Mela Eckenfels: Do not lay blame unless it is actually warranted.

The following is not something you can generally write in a book that gets published. It comes pretty close to moral relativism and that makes some people deeply uncomfortable. It is however something that anyone writing historical fiction should understand.

What people do is limited by the the resources they have available. The moral codes followed by the society then adapt to those actions. It is fine to believe in absolute morality and reflect that in your writing, but you should remember that the morals societies actually follow are a compromise between that absolute morality and the constraints of the real world.

For example, torturing suspected criminals until they confess (often despite being innocent) is both morally wrong and inefficient. It would be better to find the actual culprits and forced false confessions do not help. So why did nearly all past societies use torture and why was it considered morally acceptable?

Instead of torture modern police use a wide variety of investigative and interrogation techniques that are much more efficient. And yes, more moral too. Most of those techniques were invented after first professional police forces were found. Certainly they were not widely available before that. First really professional detective force was probably Sûreté. It was founded 1812 by Eugène François Vidocq.

The key point here is the year: 1812. If your story is set before that, effective methods of criminal investigation were not available. There were still good investigators and an organization, parts of the catholic church investigating heresy or the secret agents of a state for example, could be quite competent. They would interrogate people and inspect evidence properly. But that was not the norm and certainly not something that the laws or moral codes could assume. Often "Make them talk" was the best solution available.

Under such circumstances the moral question becomes "Is it okay to torture possibly innocent prisoners or should I just do nothing while murders and robberies are committed?"

For an individual that is deep in the grey area. Is there really nothing else I could do? Should I cut slack when I am almost certain this person is innocent? Is my prejudice of his background influencing me? There is really no correct answer that always applies.

For a government making the laws the question is simpler. The state must be seen as effective in dealing with crime or the laws become meaningless. Including the laws that sustain the state. The state must have some credible method of enforcing its laws. If the only method that is certain to be available is brutal and by itself amoral then the state must authorize its agents to use brutal methods. And the church must advise the people that the state is morally correct in doing so. The actual explanation of why such compromise of morality is necessary and correct is probably omitted as confusing to laymen. So as far as most people are concerned torture then becomes morally acceptable.

And following the morals of your society, does not make the individual evil. The best you can do is the best you can do. Good people try to do their best to follow a stricter moral code. Evil people don't. And the same person can be either depending on the subject. An otherwise good person that fanatically hates Muslims is not that good when dealing with Muslims. Such strong prejudices were common at the period you mention. It is also common for people to be much better when dealing with people they love. Your totally evil villain can be loving husband and father. His funeral might be full of grieving family and friends swapping stories about how good he was. Humans are complicated and can't be reduced to being "good" or "evil".

Further not following the moral codes of a future with quite different material constraints does not make the society evil, either. Moral codes actually do evolve over time. Modern understanding of human rights is nearly incomprehensible to people in older periods. For that matter even the Islamic countries of the modern period have reservations of large parts of what we often consider correct. This is not because one or the other is right or wrong. It is because while there may be absolute morality our understanding is incomplete and fragmentary. And thus subject to perspective errors, modern western understanding of the relationship between the people and the state is quite different from other periods or cultures, so interpretations of what it is proper for the state to do will be different.

So you should always try to interpret what the people do by the standards of their of time and culture. Not to excuse their actions, that really pisses of the moral absolutists who thanks to Abrahamic religions are very common, but because otherwise it is impossible to understand correctly the reasons they do what they do. And unless the author understands the readers won't either. And it is very difficult to relate to a person doing awful things for reasons you do not understand. Which kind of hurts immersion and all that. Comedy probably is a practical workaround.

  • 1
    Actually the torture wasn't (or at least wasn't meant as) a general investigative tool. It was to be applied only after you were convinced that the person was guilty. That is, in the mind of the people back then, they didn't torture innocent people, but guilty people that hadn't yet confessed. Since it also only was applied for serious crimes, there was no question to them that the victims deserved the torture (especially given that they were first given the chance to confess without torture).
    – celtschk
    Jan 17, 2016 at 16:15
  • @celtschk True (although not always), I actually knew that but got distracted by the impact of the lack of proper investigative methods. I actually do make the proper connection later by noting that the actual cause is the need to demonstrate that justice will be done, not actually finding out the criminals. I blame it on the fact that I think much faster than I write. This leads to statements that are kind of true but only in context of things I have already thought but not yet written. Sometimes I forget to write the necessary explanation entirely... Not editing, as your comment suffices? Jan 17, 2016 at 17:21
  • I wasn't planning on any torture scenes, but there is still plenty of awfulness to go around. For instance, if I choose to tackle the siege and fall of Constantinople, I can pick a family faced with starvation rather than whatever. Fear is a much better literary device because it propels imagination.
    – Stu W
    Jan 17, 2016 at 18:12
  • @StuW Yes, if you want your kids to believe that we live in evil times and the end is near as some religious people do, you need to absolutely ban reading history books. Otherwise they will know that the past really was much worse in every way than the present. Honestly, most historical fiction totally ignores this. You probably could too? Jan 17, 2016 at 19:03
  • Correction: The oceans used to have more fish. More ecological diversity. Central Asia had more water. Jan 17, 2016 at 19:05

I think it certainly is not true that "if you write a good story, people won't care whose feet get stepped on". If, say, you paint the Catholic Church as totally evil, I think you're going to offend a lot of Catholics. Etc for any group.

If your goal is to paint some group as evil, if the purpose of your book is to expose how evil the Masons or the French or the bankers or whomever were, then you have to expect to offend people, and you can hardly claim to be deeply hurt that the people you are attacking are annoyed with you. But you seem to indicate that that's not your goal.

I think the solution most authors use is to just not bring the subject up. If you want to write a story set in the Balkans in the Middle Ages but you don't want to get into the morality of the Ottoman incursions, then just don't talk about it. Talk about the romance or the adventure story or the mystery or whatever it is you want to write about. If I was writing a murder mystery set in 21st century America and I didn't want to discuss, say, the relative merits of Republican versus Democrat politics, I don't think it would be hard to just not bring it up.

If you want to get into these subjects, another option is to explain why people did what they did. Like @VilleNeimei's discussion about torture. I read once that courts in the Middle Ages were very concerned about convicting an innocent person, and so they insisted on very high standards of evidence of guilt. But ... they thought the most convincing evidence was a confession, and confessions were often extracted with torture.

I'm not the first to say that it's easy to condemn others for prejudice, cruelty, and other evils when you haven't had to live through what they have. Like just recently I heard a tour guide in the Middle East ridicule the Crusaders for having no respect for the word of Muslims, for declaring that a promise made by a Muslim was worthless. But hmm, could that be because there were several incidents were Christians negotiated with Muslims, and the Muslims than broke their promises and took advantage of the agreement to kill the Christians? My point here isn't to attack all Muslims, but simply to say that if just a few months before a Muslim broke a peace agreement and killed all your friends, it is hardly surprising if today you don't trust Muslims, and for someone 1000 years later to say, "how terrible that they didn't trust people just because they had a different religion!" is just ... ignorant. The people at the time had very good reason not to trust these particular people.

What happens when everyone around you says that X is a good thing? If you thought it was wrong, but the government and your teachers and every book you read and your family and friends all say it's good, how many of us would just go along without thinking? Or say, Can it really be that I am right and everyone else in the world is wrong?

Some horrible behavior is prompted by ignorance. I mean literal ignorance: not knowing the true facts. For example, when the British arrived in Australia, it was widely believed that the Aborigines were not "fully human", that they were an earlier stage in evolution. And so many white people saw no more moral problem in taking their land than they would in driving away wild animals that occupied land where they wanted to build.

Another popular option is to portray individuals or groups as torn between good and bad impulses. I'm not a Catholic, and maybe a lot of Catholics would object to this characterization, but I think the Catholic Church started out as a very good organization. People respected them for their high moral standards, concern for the poor, etc. And so they build prestige and wealth and power. And then people came along who saw all that prestige and wealth and power and wanted in on it, and they infiltrated the organization and at many times and places took control of it. So there were competing forces: those who joined the church to further its original goals of preaching and teaching and helping, and those who joined as a route to wealth and power. You could certainly say similar things about almost any government. Etc.

  • Good stories don't make globally prejudicial statements unless you are writing fantasy. Even then, resolution with the maniacal villains better be pretty special to defeat the allure of melodrama. Your explanation is fine, but 400 pages of hate-mongering isn't a good story, and no one will buy it. Pulling an example from more recent history, successful books and movies from Nazi Germany haven't focused on Nazis, right? They are about a specific family or small group that have a story to tell. Now, there are successful movies and novels that have torture scenes. I personally find it revolting.
    – Stu W
    Jan 18, 2016 at 13:47
  • And won't do it. Besides, if we're talking Inquisition, the sentences, carried out by the Crown, we're far more worthy of prose than the confessions. By and large, the Church was a not-so-innocent bystander to the various inquisitions or conquistadors. And this is fiction. But since you're interested, my, um, name for the novel is Harry A. Gold, and my Facebook page will have the trailer up by the end of the week.
    – Stu W
    Jan 18, 2016 at 13:56
  • "400 pages of hate-mongering isn't a good story" Exactly. The people who are targets of your hate certainly aren't going to read it for pleasure. If your story is somehow established as "important" and "controversial", your targets might read it to know what the other side is saying, but few books reach that status. It might appeal to people who hate the group you are hating. Personally I can't imagine wanting to read a book that's a long diatribe against even a group I disagree with. Maybe I don't hate anyone enough.
    – Jay
    Jan 18, 2016 at 17:36

The other answers are quite good and very detailed. I would just like to add an issue of perspective.

TL;DR: Show, don't tell.

A good work - especially fiction - doesn't judge its contents/subjects. It doesn't tell the readers what to think or feel. It presents situations and actions in a way that impacts the reader and causes them to form their own opinions and feelings about what has been presented.

A more real and detailed presentation which causes the reader to identify with people and events in the story will usually cause stronger responses.

When the readers draw these conclusions for themselves or experience what something must have felt like, then that gets past all their filters and defences and changes them from within. That's the magic of great writing.

  • Indeed. Wisdom. I'm struggling with how much reality is too much reality. Lots of ways to tell a salvation drama and stay 90%+ true to history. I'm writing an epic and running about 50/50. It's neat; I've never written anything like it before.
    – Stu W
    Jan 20, 2016 at 4:55

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