The single most annoying part of being a historical fiction writer is political correctness.
By this, I do not mean the choice to create empowered female characters or triumphant minorities, because I do tend to enjoy populating my books with those people. The problem is extreme liberals (with whom I share extremely liberal views), who believe my books should ONLY include the empowered, and are offended at the use of a racist using a racial slur, or a wife-beater raping his wife into submission, or a slave being sold as chattel.
In Blind Tribute, I introduced slavery and characters who were slaves because it is a book about the Civil War. That they do not save themselves from the evil institution is historically accurate. That they need the assistance of a white man to accomplish their ends is historically accurate. That their choices are limited, even after slavery is ended, is historically accurate.
In The Stolen Child and Concrete Loyalties, I made a point of using epithets for every race, ethnicity, and orientation (as well as every curse word imaginable). In part, this was an exercise in dialogue, but also because gangsters in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn were probably not enlightened liberals. (For the record, the politics in these books are also decidedly not correct, being centered entirely on Tammany Hall.) Ruthless men with big guns most likely didn’t hesitate to verbally, if not physically, attack the “other” for “otherness” with regularity and impunity. Ethnic minorities in New York City, before our society achieved some level of racial parity, were most often micks or dagos or coons or kikes. This is historically accurate.
I introduced twenty years of domestic violence between Jimmy and Flory Donegan not only because Jimmy was a violent character, but also because wives had far fewer options then than they do now. There was no battered women’s shelter where Flory and her children could hide. The police would not have interfered. Their families might think it unfortunate, but not cause for defying the Church with a divorce. The only way she would be liberated from him was to be widowed. This is historically accurate.
The argument is that I should not “uphold” these values, especially since I would not, in present day, countenance domestic violence or racist language or the sale of humans. If I wouldn’t “promote it” now, then how can I do so in my books? (Of course, this presumes fiction “promotes” its themes rather than being a medium for telling stories.) If I actually spend time, energy, and money to advocate against these problems today, how can I possibly consider characters with these traits, especially if they are not punished for it in the end?
The short answer? Truth in fiction. The long answer is considerably more complex.
First, sometimes, my characters are punished for it in the end (or at least change their ways). Jimmy, the wife-beating rapist in The Stolen Child, is killed by his gangster buddies, who justify the murder, in part, by the fact that “his wife would be better off without him.” But Charlie, the obscenely wealthy, racist, classist, misogynist pig (and still my favorite character in all my books), faces no repercussions at all. In fact, he gains in power and stature throughout the story.
In Blind Tribute, it is by his ownership of slaves that Harry becomes an Abolitionist, advocate for women’s rights, and a better man. But he is horribly disfigured, nearly to the point of death, for his new convictions, and his slaves are never rescued from a life made infinitely worse without him.
Here is the truth: Racist, classist, misogynist pigs, especially ones with money, built America and the rest of the industrialized world and often still run it. Slaves had (have) miserable lives and most did (do) not manage the considerable personal empowerment required to change their circumstance. People who opposed these ideas in years past suffered for it, far more than I do today for holding the same opinions.
This is not to say it is RIGHT, only that it is accurate.
So, why choose characters who exhibit these traits? Why not write about the minority of slaves who triumphed or the wealthy men who advocated for the poor? Wouldn’t my work “stand out” if I chose characters who weren’t necessarily products of their times?
Because I don’t choose my characters or stories. They choose me.
Because if I put words in Charlie’s mouth, or Harry’s or Jimmy’s or Flory’s, they sound like me, not themselves. If I wanted to write a story about myself, I would write an autobiography, and it would be far less interesting than a novel.
Because there is a place for reflection on our past that doesn’t include erasing anything we don’t like.
Because my goals as a fiction writer are not the same as my goals as an activist, and I am intelligent enough to support opposing trains of thought.
Compelling stories are not always pretty, and the act of moralizing, even in fiction—no, especially in fiction—is far more offensive to me than accurately portraying a racist or a rapist or a slaveholder. Pretending these people and episodes didn’t exist, just because the world is now changing, does a disservice to history itself.