I'm writing historical fiction which is set in ancient China. My MC is a historical figure who really did go into battle as a woman.

Women in the ancient world were abused and mistreated. Males slaves were often valued more highly than women. Even though my MC managed to rise above this, we know from history that she never truly developed a sense of self-respect. After she returned from battle, the first thing she did was to take the initiative to bring a mistress home for her husband. She even brags to her parents about how good of a wife she's being by going the extra mile to satisfy her husband's sexual appetite. Once she returns from battle and resumes her role as a wife, she submissively concludes that her only role for the rest of her life is childbearing. Sadly, women in ancient China had no sense of self-respect.

If I continue the story as an unbiased narrator, the reader is likely to be shocked. I want to condemn these atrocities and help the modern reader understand how far society has progressed. Yet, I don't want to have to step in as the narrator and have to speak to the reader and help them understand this culture. I wish I could have the characters do this for me... but this was so commonplace that it was rarely discussed. Thus, any dialogue I could insert feels forced.

This event is well known enough that people the most familiar with China's history are sure to notice its absence. Deleting this event requires me to significantly alter later historical events or end the story before all issues have been resolved.

There are many stories (usually dystopian) where the MC is forced into a terrible world and the reader comes away inspired. I wish I could do that with this story. However, I'm really struggling with how to turn this one around without breaking the rules of historical fiction.

  • 2
    Possible duplicate of Invoking Deliberate Values Dissonance
    – user29299
    Commented Jun 19, 2019 at 9:50
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    @ArbiterElegantiae I don't think the proposed duplicate question is much help. It takes a historical figure and explores her values dissonance when she's transplanted into modern times. The current question asks how to handle the reader's values dissonance as the reader immerses themself in a seemingly barbaric historical world. Commented Jun 19, 2019 at 12:02

4 Answers 4


"Sadly, women in ancient China had no sense of self-respect."

I'd like to disagree with this statement. When you say this, you are already thinking in modern terms.

My area is European Middle Ages and at that time a woman had no power over her body. She belonged to her father, then to her husband. Does that mean she had no self-respect? Where does the sense of one's worth sprung from?

I have read chronicles and even some 'biographies' (in the shape of a collection of documents that give insight into their lives and struggles) of women. True, these were mostly high-class women, but let's start there.

From what I could see in these documents, a woman's worth was tied to what she could do. There's the case of a young queen whose husband had quite a few well-know mistresses, but she took all the bastard children under her wing and raised them. At this point, instead of being a victim, she was in-charge and the mistresses effectively lost control over the lives of their own children. She was also capable of governing a large set of estates. Her worth and self-respect was not tied to submitting without a word to her husband's behavior.

There's another case of a woman who rose to be in charge of a small convent. She faced mutiny within the ranks, and pressures from outside, and yet she rallied and went so far as to go in person to see the Pope (or his representative). And yet, she still willingly submitted to and reinforced attitudes we today abhor.

To focus on your example: Perhaps bringing her husband a mistress is precisely a sign of how much self-respect she possesses. She does not wait for him to choose someone, but chooses someone herself. Someone whom she knows will please him - kuddoes for her because she knows her husband's taste and will only give him the best - and who will also please her, in the sense the mistress will recognise the wife as her 'superior' within the household and must strive to please not only the husband, but also the wife.

Or perhaps, as some lady in the 19th century once wrote, the more mistresses he has the less he'll come to bother. If there is no love within the marriage, making sure the husband is sexually satisfied means the wife can focus on having a respectful, or even friendly, relationship without the unwanted intimacies. Just imagine yourself forced to partner with someone whom you respect intellectual - perhas even enjoy spending time with - but for whom you have no sexual attraction whatsoever. Wouldn't a lover to handle the sexual angle be the perfect solution?

she submissively concludes that her only role for the rest of her life is childbearing.

Is that historically accurate? Is she forced to fit in the role, or does she feel fulfilled and ready to start a new stage that she expects will bring her equal fulfilment? It is not uncommon to hear of women who give up their jobs because they want to focus on being mothers, but men sometimes do it too. Have you ever heard of men who give up a job or just a time-consuming hobby because they are ready to become parents and that means moving on?

This change doesn't have to be free of ambivalence. Most new-parents miss the freedom of before their children were born, no matter how much they love their babies. Even if she willingly embraces this new phase, it's perfectly normal to miss and, at sometimes long for, the freedom of the past. That, however, does not have to erase the satisfaction of treading this new path.

Keep in mind that, in a world where women are supposed to go from being a father's possession to a husband's possession, anything that breaks the mold had the potential to be extremely fulfilling. She has satisfied her desire to do more, she has earned the respect of her peers (at least some). Perhaps she truly is satisfied and now wishes to do what else she wants to do - which is to be a mother. Even today there are women who are soldiers and risk their lives, and yet still long to be mothers. Why would she be different?

Finally, do not assume that the self-respect of a woman in the far past is dictated by the same as today. Nowadays, we cannot conceive of not having power over one's own body. In the past, you grew up with that idea as a given. As sure as the sky was blue! Your sense of respect was not tied to your body, but to your actions. Whatever you could do, that is where your sense of respect would come from. If your historical character got her hands tied and was forced into a role she did not want, even then that might not take away her sense of self-respect. She might have seen it instead as a tribulation to be faced with dignity, making sure she could control as much as possible within her limited reach. And, believe me, for some people who live in the greatest restrictions, the ability to take control over the smallest detail will bring forth a sense of self-respect. Because they can still act of their own accord.

In conclusion, do not show this culture as a piling of atrocities. Things are the way they are and the reader will easily see how wrong it is by today's standards. Instead, show how the oppressed women manage to find the strength to pull themselves up and be proud of who they are and of what they have accomplished.

PS: I'm not saying there weren't quite a lot of women suffering terribly and possesing very little self-respect, believing they were worth nothing. I'm not saying there weren't quite a lot of women who longed to live in a different society. But most would eventually learn to comply... and either bow their head, submitting and dragging themselves through a painful life, or lift their head as high as they could (or when they could) and fight to control what little they could control.

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    I really wish I could up vote this more than once!
    – s.anne.w
    Commented Jun 19, 2019 at 23:43
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    Thanks so much for your insight. I really think this helps me get into the character's head more. She defined herself by social norms... which we all do. While she was at war, she lived outside of those norms but as soon as she returned, she wanted to make sure that her value wasn't decreased. I hadn't realized that my struggle was not explaining it to the reader, but understanding it myself.
    – Caspian
    Commented Jun 19, 2019 at 23:50

I would say, trust the reader, and trust your character.

Although these things may not be "discussed", they can certainly be thought about by your POV character. She is doing something highly unusual, there must be (and have been) something highly unusual about her thinking.

What was that? Is she fearless when all other women are fearful?

A woman can be fearless (in the literal sense) and still want to behave as a traditional woman in her culture. In many cultures women accepted inequality without qualm, they believed in it themselves. They accepted that husbands sleep around, but women never did.

You shouldn't make your historical figure a paragon of early Female Equality, she clearly was not. If you want to stay true to the historical account, you need to find a coherent set of beliefs and mental traits (like not feeling fear), a driving purpose that lets her become a warrior out of necessity without challenging the role of women in her society, or even her role as a woman. She just has what is to her, a compelling reason to fight, and it is not pride, and not to prove she is the equal of any man, it is for something else: to save something or someone she loves.

If you have already made your historical figure a paragon of early Female Equality, then you have already broken with the historical record. You can continue to break with it by ignoring these later passages about "after the war" and a return to being subordinate. Personally I'd prefer the other approach, that would be a more interesting character.

Resolve the psychology. In a way, what you have is a "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" challenge. Buffy (starting out) was a girly girl and wanted to be, but was also a consummate fighter in lethal combat.

Your challenge is to make a woman be a consummate soldier without saddling her with a bunch of male attributes. Fighting, killing, courage, and self-sacrifice are not the purview of only men. You need a woman that wants to be a woman in her culture, that wants to bear and raise children, that doesn't mind sharing her husband and sees a mistress as sharing the load in keeping him happy. In many such cultures the women aren't jealous because they depend on their husband's socially-enforced honor in his commitment to provide for his wife (or wives) and children; and they never expected the husband to be faithful. It isn't only China; check out the Old Testament; the male religious leaders were promiscuous as hell and never punished for it.

But at the same time, your character needs some driving reason to become a soldier, to protect something she holds dear (a principle or actual property or persons). And the mental traits that allow her to do what no other women do; defy the traditions she loves and fight, because she thinks those traditions will be lost if she doesn't step up. But once that war is won, she can lay down her sword, and become the traditional woman she wanted to be all along.

That is the nature of the internal struggle you need to portray, in her thoughts and to show in her actions. Yes, she fights, but when she is not fighting she does not behave as a man, she behaves as a women. Buffy wants to live the cliché pretty high school girl's life. She is denied that by the necessity of being a hero and saving the world, but she never becomes a man! Your character is similar, and needs to thread the same needle.

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    I hadn't realized it... but now that you point it out, the tension of her intense desire to remain a woman (and return to the social norms of womanhood) is clearly evident in the historical accounts. Thanks so much for helping me realize this.
    – Caspian
    Commented Jun 19, 2019 at 23:52

Something similar has been a plague for my story telling. I finally found some to ask that understood the basic challenge. Their recommendation was to that as I tell me story, I only share enough information required to move the story forward. And, that I only relate the information important to my character’s frame of mind and that they would consider important enough to mention so who ever they are talking to would understand they meant.

As an example, if its common knowledge that X is true, and everyone knows that fact, then she wouldn’t mention it a conversation. So, your character that behaves with an obeisance that shocks modern sensibilities, she wouldn’t explain it all. Her reactions would demonstrate she expected it, that this was normal to her and everyone she knew. She would comment on how something didn’t fit the routine and the normal. She would certainly also react as a soldier, or be inclined to react as a soldier and might struggle with comporting herself according the conventional practices. The hard question is how would she view herself — as a failure for having inappropriate desires for her sex in that time, or would she be ashamed because she let her true feelings show.


Building on what was said by Sara Costa, perhaps there is a secondary moral to your story. A person can live a moral, self-respecting life independent of their culture. We who see ourselves as enlightened often assume smallness of character and misery where there was none.

Perhaps you could address your readers in an afterword. You could ask them to put themselves in your MC's place, and replace their modern culture's subjective values with the MC's values. What would they do differently? This seems like a difficult—yet useful—exercise.

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    Note OP explicitly states "I don't want to have to step in as the narrator and have to speak to the reader and help them understand this culture." Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 19:11
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    – Cyn
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 4:58
  • @Galastel Right. I figured an afterword might be more palatable, since it does not interrupt the flow of the narration. Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 14:48

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