Enter the Protagonist

So, I've been having fun researching Ancient Greece - more fun than I thought I would, actually. It's part of what makes writing interesting, but like all research it has its ups and downs.

Some of the ups, of course, include location. Obviously, I cannot travel to Ancient Greece, but neither can I hop on a plane and travel to modern Greece. Now, granted, I could if I had the money and time, but I don't. Therefore, what can you do about research in a time and place you cannot visit?

Ireland, 2007
I think many writers long for the day where they can take a junket to whatever location they need to visit. Though I write about Ancient Greece, Medieval Ireland or Colonial Pennsylvania, most often my books take place where I live or have lived. It makes it easier for me to describe the locations. For example, I haven't lived in Pennsylvania for twenty years, but one never forgets the feel of the summer's heat and humidity.

Scholarly books provide a good foundation for research. Through these books, we can discover the clothing, history, culture, and political situations in a time period or location. For modern stories, travel accounts help clarify and describe places we haven't visited.

Beyond the general overview, we can face some problems. What did they eat? How comfortable were their clothes? Where did they sleep? Once again, modern cultures are a little easier, but historical cultures, such as Ancient Greece, can be researched through other means. Homer writes of adventures and daring deeds, but his characters eat and sleep. What food was provided for them gives us an idea of what was considered a good meal.

Stepping further afield, we can look into the arts of times and places to see what they depicted. In some cultures, this is less available, but for other cultures, it becomes readily available. Paintings or photographs provide an idea of what a time period ate, their habitat, and even favorite colors or fabrics.

One element I do find hard to stop is the projection of my values onto past cultures. The Ancient Greeks were very male-centered. In fact, good Athenian wives spent most of the lives indoors, rarely venturing out unless they needed to attend a religious ceremony. Contrast that with modern life, in which many young women are encouraged to have lives outside the home, it can be difficult to understand the culture.

Developing characters to fit the time period can cause some troubles. For me, I tend to write with a female protagonist, so a character set in Ancient Athens will have some limitations. How do I overcome them? By accepting the limitations, and utilizing characters within the world.

For the story, I needed a female character who could explore Athenian culture, but wasn't entirely ignored by the population. While a slave could visit places, the nature of a slave limited who said individual could speak with, and who would listen to him. A female slave seemed even less ideal.

Enter Harpalyke, my chief investigator. She is a woman of means, but due to her primary occupation has freedom to move around the city, talking with whomever she desires. She may not be on the highest level of respectability, but she has powerful allies who ease the paths when needed. Harpalyke is one of the hetairai, or courtesan. These women were trained to provide stimulating conversation, interest in the arts because sexual favors were only a part of what they did in the male-dominated Ancient Athenian culture. These women were not greatly respected by the wives of Athens, but were accepted for their position.

So what are some steps you can take to create a character for the time period?

  1. Understand the time and cultural limitations. A character from the 1920s will behave differently from one in the Fourth Century B.C. It might be helpful to actually draw up a list of what individuals could and could not do. For example, Harpalyke could travel around Athens, but she could not bring charges to court. A citizen could do that, but citizens were male. 
  2. Know how far to push expectations. Even today, there are certain cultural expectations we all follow based upon our ethnicity, gender and economic level. When we push beyond those boundaries, some consider us odd, independent or dangerous dependent upon the actions and motivations therewith. A character might have certain cultural expectations, but those can be pushed within reason.
  3. Look beyond the accepted. Harpalyke is a hetairai, not a good wife. She is tainted, and one that many might not focus on, but because of her tainted life, she can explore her time period in a way that another character couldn't. 

The tensions surround the position of the hetairai will lend for some explosive scenes, but also for some intriguing plot lines. By balancing what modern readers want and expect with what another culture knew and loved, we can create characters that are both interesting, and engaging. It takes balance to do so, but it's what makes writing so fascinating.

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