Getting inside ancient characters

Any moment now, my agent will receive a Chrissy present: the ms of The Magnesia Sanction (working title) revision 8. It waits only for the Goddess of Punctuation to weave her magic and it's on the way. Which means I have more time to write posts.

Beverly Jennings, during the most recent Roman Mystery Book Chat, made this interesting comment:

I think no matter how hard an author tries, you couldn't completely put yourself in the mindset of an ancient Roman.

I'm sure Beverley's right, but lacking a time machine it's not a testable assertion.

Can I duplicate the mindset of an ancient Roman Greek? Maybe not, though I think I'd have a better chance than most.

A lot of the trick in my view is forgetting. Forgetting 2,000 years of history and culture, and immersing yourself only in what the people of the time knew, read, heard and thought.

For example, you can search the ancient sources as much as you like, and you will not find one word suggesting slavery is anything other than a natural condition.

Christian morality has to go, especially Christian sexual morality. Pericles was considered weird in his own time because he was so besotted with Aspasia that he didn't go to perfectly respectable orgies.

The mediaeval concept of chivalry has to go. That's more than you might think; an awful lot of modern manners derive from chivalry, in particular the social rules for gentlemen and ladies, and the concept of fair play.

Women can't own property, they are property.

Beauty matters.

National patriotism is not a concept. The order of loyalty is to yourself, your family, and to your city.

A very deep understanding of the human condition, far beyond what most people today can manage, because the Greeks experienced life in a fast-forward sort of way. They lived lives which the modern office worker can only dream about (though the dream might be a nightmare). Wild reversals of fortune are the stuff of life.

They believed in luck.

Their Gods are reality. Diotima gets excited about the subject in Magnesia Sanction:
"Can you really look around you, and tell me Love and War and Lust and Death don’t rule our lives? Wisdom and chaos and motherhood and the madness of wine and the beauty of music, they and the seasons and the sun are what we Hellenes worship, and anyone with the wit to open his eyes can see they’re as real as a smack in the face."
The Greeks demanded personal excellence. They had nothing but contempt for anything less, but praised the excellent in extravagant terms, even if the subject was an enemy.

You have to keep in mind that DNA has not changed in a mere few thousand years. The same diverse human nature we see today is exactly the same spread among ancient peoples, from morons to geniuses, the deeply compassionate to the remorselessly self-serving, the lazy to the energetic, the modest to the arrogant, the cowardly to the brave, and all the while the majority are in the middle of the bell curve. The difference between then and now lies not in the nature of the people, but in the way the culture directed their natures.

My stories begin in Athens at the very birth of western civilization. By definition it means we're starting with something which is not western. In fact Athens would have been recognizably Asian or Middle Eastern in mindset. As the series proceeds (the Publishing Gods willing) we see western ideals actually being invented.


Amalia T. said...

I wonder if learning the language isn't a significant window into the mindset of the times? I mean, really learning it-- to the point where you can think in it, so that it's another map laid over your mind. I know that when I was learning Latin I felt like I was getting glimpses of this other world, every time I met a word with compounded meanings that made no sense to the associations of modernity. An old dead language would perforce filter out many modern ideas--there wouldn't be words for it.

Loretta Ross said...

Excellent post as usual Gary, and congrats on finishing your rewrite! And, Amalia, that's a great point too. I took Latin too and I know exactly what you mean, though I didn't get anywhere near good enough at it to think in it.

On a weird but not entirely unrelated tangent, are you familiar with the concept of "race memory" or "genetic memory"? I swear, sometimes, if the room is quiet and the mood is just right, I can remember things that happened a thousand years ago. Maybe not remember them on an intellectual level, but on a visceral one.

Do you know what I mean? And, if so, do you ever use that feeling? Are you descended at all from the Greeks?

Stephanie Thornton said...

I love this post!

There are distinct differences between the ancient world and the modern one that can help you get inside your characters' minds. The only problem is relating that to a modern audience without freaking them out.

For example, Hatshepsut probably married her brother around age 12. Hmmm... Modern readers flip that siblings are marrying in the first place, not to mention at such a young age. I had a very long discussion with my first round of beta readers about that, even though I moved the ages to 14.

There were also issues with the Egyptians view of the afterlife. It's way better than it is here and so long as you've got your name preserved in this world, you're guaranteed a spot in the next (at least in Hatshepsut's time period). There's a scene where I didn't play that up enough and it bothered modern readers. I just assumed they understood that from a prior work.

Gary, have you had any issues with modern readers getting tripped up by your characters' ancient Greek mindsets?

scaryazeri said...

Let me think for a sec....It is exactly like back home! :) Maybe you need to pay a visit.
Beauty still matters, really. Gods, alas,are very real for too many people. We believe in luck
(supplemented by connections and bribes) and women are still a property in many cases.:)))

Carrie said...

I appreciate this look at something we should all keep in mind while composing historical characters.

With mine, I have to immerse myself for several hours and then hurry up and write the section before the sensation fades. Odd, yes. And Mine is Roman as you well know. At least your projects are falling into place. Edit #8 will be a success yes?

Thanks again. You're unmistakably awesome.

Gary Corby said...

That's a great point about the language Amalia. I doubt I could even begin to do it with Attic Greek. I considered at one point going for real fluency to translate the ancient texts, but discovered the extant translations are better than I could ever hope to achieve. I was better off putting the same effort into improving my writing.

Loretta, I have no Greek ancestry as far as I know, except in so far as we're all their cultural descendants. So the chances of ancestral memory helping me out are minimal at best. I do in my wilder moments claim descent from Odin, King of the Norse Gods, but the reasoning behind that is too convoluted for a comment. Thanks for the idea though; I'll make it a separate post!

Stephanie, the marriage issue applies to Greece as well as Egypt. The average girl was married at 14. I did some rather tricky but totally valid social engineering to get my heroine to age 20 in an unmarried state.

There've been a few instances where I've run into culture clash between ancient and modern ways, but it's hard to give specific examples without spoilers! The point about Diotima's age is one of them though. Sometimes I choose a path that will leave the reader comfortable, as long as I can point to an ancient precedent to show it's a valid choice for the characters. Sometimes I actually emphasize the difference so the reader knows they're in a different place and learns something along the way.

Okay Scary, you've convinced me, I'm never sending my daughters to Baku. :-)

Hi Carrie, yes, revision 8 feels strong to me. I think we're there.

Barrie said...

May Revision 8 be THE revision!

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Barrie! I think it probably is. That, or I'll go insane. :-)

Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, what was the Athenians' and Spartans' sense of themselves? And, beyond the various leagues, was there anything approaching a common Hellenic identity? Did festivals help build one? And did Herodotus probed the histories of people other than the Greeks. Did this, in turn, sharpen Greeks' conception of themselves as people different from other nations?
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Gary Corby said...

Hi Peter! The Greeks had a strong sense of their own cultural identity; they absolutely knew the difference between a Hellene and a barbarian. Only Hellenes were allowed to compete at the Olympics, and anyone questionable had to prove descent. Herodotus recorded how the Greeks felt about these things, but I doubt he sharpened their feelings because, surprisingly, not that many Greeks ever read him.

Bill Kirton said...

Another great, thought-provoking blog Gary. I too hope this is THE revision.

Since my historical characters are 19th century Scots, the cultural and moral issues aren't as critical but, on the subject of familiarity with a language and its effect on one's own perceptions, let me just add a quick thought. As an ex-lecturer in French, I obviously had to become quite fluent. I also spent a couple of years living in the country and speaking the language all the time. But even then when I was speaking French I always had the feeling that I wasn't quite me. It was something to do with vocabulary, joke-telling, responding with one-liners - some indefinable thing which kept part of who I am (or think I am) unexpressed. I'm not sure that immersing yourself in Ancient Greek would have made things any easier in your assumption of their mindset.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Bill! Interesting point about the French. I have to confess I can see you telling the same jokes in the same tone in French as English, since I know perfectly well you are totally expert.

You should by the way read Cara Black's mysteries, set in Paris!