Wish fulfilment books – why I shy away from them

Posted: August 18, 2011 in Trivialities, rants & other ephemera

It’s understandable in a way. You love a certain period of history, become engrossed in it and want to put yourself into the story. For a lot of readers, it works and they enjoy the results. For me, it doesn’t. Or, at least, hasn’t so far.

I’m not talking about original characters as a whole. There are many books featuring OCs that work extremely well. Hawley Jarman’s We Speak No Treason comes to mind here. The book has its critics, and its flaws, but I have a very large soft spot for it. Hawley Jarman was (along with Margaret Campbell Barnes) my way into the Wars of the Roses and, more particularly, my way to Warwick and the rest of the Nevills. The three OCs in WSNT carry the story, are nameless (two have nicknames) and aren’t disguised avatars of the author. (Or, if they are, the disguise is better than most.)

** [I have a confession to make here. When I was very much younger, my first attempt at WoR fiction was through the agency of a wish fulfilment OC. It was clear from almost the start that this wasn’t going to work. However, I liked the character and the set up so much that I changed it quite dramatically, and now it forms the core of an SF wip that has taken itself in a whole new direction. I feel this qualifies me a little to have an opinion here.] **

As soon as I spot one of the following in a blurb, little red flags are raised:

1. An historical character travels through time. The set up might be brilliant, and the consequences of that journey intriguing, but I know it’s to get the character into the author’s world so that he (usually) can fall in love with her (usually), whatever his marital status might be in his own time.

2. A modern character travels through time. She (usually) can then stun the HC, so that he (usually) is amazed at how feisty (so one of my least favourite words!) she is. She can insert herself into the story as a kind of deus ex machina, and there are no problems about anachronistic real, actual wives or lovers.

3. An OC becomes the secret lover of a well known HC. If he (usually) is known to have had a mistress or two, she (usually) is the One He Loves Best in All the World, despite the fact that her name never comes up in the sources. (Hawley Jarman does do this in WSNT, but puts the relationship between Gloucester and the Maiden on hold during his marriage to Anne Nevill. And while she loves him  best in all the world, there’s no suggestion that she is the Love of His Life. And there is a tenuous connection to reality here, the Maiden turns out to be the mother of Richard’s natural daughter, Katherine.)

If the HC is either not known for playing away, or if he is credited with loving his wife, that doesn’t seem to cause too many problems. She is his secret guilty pleasure, the one he can Be Himself with, who can warn him of all sorts of dangers and get him out of trouble, preferably without anyone knowing anything about the part she plays in his rescue.

4. A woman/girl dresses in her dead brother’s clothes to take his place in whatever venture he was about to begin. Often it has something to do with family honour. “Good Lord!” the HC can say. “You’re a woman! And… and… I love you!” That way, she gets to be in the thick of things without all of that tricky reality stuff getting in the way. In her ‘boy’ persona, she can become so valuable to the HC that he would never consider outing her. In her ‘girl’ persona, of course, he can’t do without her.

There’s nothing wrong with lying in your bed at night, or looking out of the train window, dreaming about Being There and Loving Him. The trick is then to find a way to translate that into a form that doesn’t involve any of the sleight of hand mentioned above. Unless it’s the Duke of Exeter that’s your secret fancy, you might try and find a way to identify with the man’s wife, to put yourself in her shoes and write the story from her point of view. (Actually, in Exeter’s case, you probably could make up a mistress if you wanted to. I can’t imagine that he was any more celibate after the break down of his marriage than his wife was!)

I understand the limitations of doing this, writing from the pov of a real wife, and that’s another set of hurdles that can be difficult to get over. (And a whole nother kettle of fish.) But it helps keep the historical in Historical Fiction. Anything else is Alternate History or Fantasy – and there’s nothing wrong with either of these. If an author makes it clear that that’s what they’re writing, then my little red flags stay down. It still might not be a book I want to read, but my reasons will be different.

  1. Good points! I don’t mind #3 in itself, especially when the HC is known to have taken lovers, but when the author’s self-projection becomes too transparent, and the author is over the age of 16, it’s embarrassing to read.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks, Susan. I guess if a married man has a number of lovers over the years, it throws the But I Was His One True Love! into question. And it can be done well, Hawley Jarman’s Maiden doesn’t make me feel the way some others do. And often there doesn’t seem to be a good narrative reason for making up a girlfriend rather than looking at the story through the eyes of a known HC, such as a wife or documented lover.

  2. MorningGlory says:

    Essentially it comes down to the author’s love of the craft of storytelling. The author needs to get out of the way at some point and focus on the story that is unfolding. Even writing alternate history is no excuse for poor storytelling – events and people have to make some sense within the story itself. An author doesn’t necessarily need to describe every detail either. I’m thinking of a writer like Tolkien (different genre, I know) but he didn’t need to tell us how the Numenoreans built the Argonath or Minas Tirith out of the side of a mountain; he crafted the story so well we believe they could do it without questioning how they did it.

    I also dislike the stereotypical “feisty heroine”. Why can’t we have some self-doubt and world-weariness for some complexity?

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks, MorningGlory. You need have no worries about discussing (good) fantasy here! Like many people, I stand on the nexus between SF/fantasy and historical fiction – it’s a fun place to be. I agree wholeheartedly about the author getting out of the way. The examples I gave are of authors plonking themselves squarely in the middle of the story.
      I think ‘feisty’ can be good for young readers – it’s much easier to accept a Mary Sue heroine in a children’s book than an adult’s. I think it’s good for kids to see unrealistic examples of themselves (unrealistic in a positive, affirming way) – girls who can hold their own and more, boys with superpowers, girls with superpowers! – but by the time you get to adulthood, the reader shouldn’t need quite so much validation! Bring me the world weary and self doubting, I say!

  3. Philippa says:

    I love well written historical fiction but for me the story has to be based around what we know to be factually true so if Warwick is known to have been in Calais at the time I don’t want him in London just to improve the story line. Another problem for me is when an author ascribes 21st century standards, ideas and values to people who lived many centuries ago and by very different terms of reference. One category of historical novel that lights my red flag is when the HC is simply a cover for what is nothing more than a third rate story line or thinly disguised sex scenes.

    What the contemporary writers don’t discuss are issues like motivation, personality, relationships, why someone behaved as they did and this is where good historical fiction comes in by exploring new ideas. Susan has used this technique to good effect in Queen of Last Hopes; there are no records of what the marriage of Edward of Lancaster and Anne Neville was like and this allow her to portray them as two young people attempting to make the best of circumstances that were not of their choosing.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Yes, Philippa! Susan’s books are far more sound that a hell of a lot of stuff out there. I think I’m going to have a different view of that marriage – but it won’t be the Cruel Prince/Innocent Pawn view that’s so prevalent in (esp Ricardian) fiction.

      A lot of writers jump into a notion (John Nevill & his wife seemed to have had a loving marriage, for instance) without trying to work out why, beyond ‘they must have married for love’ – when its far more interesting to read, research and write about a loving or affectionate couple who were strangers when they met at the church door. What led them to develop such strong feelings for each other? What did they have to go through to get there?

      One of the reasons for this bog is to try and present a view of the Nevills that’s as well rounded as I can get it. Too many writers portray them as stereotypes, or forces at play in the lives of their main characters. They were a far more fascinating family than most HF would lead us to believe. I’m loving my exploration of their lives, their relationships with each other, significant others and children; kings, queens, allies and enemies.

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