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Fiction of Its Times or Fiction for All Time?

(With thanks to Jael McHenry for raising this timely topic [1] on Monday.  It’s on our minds this year and there’s lots to say about it.  Here’s my take.)

Should fiction reflect its times or transcend its times?  What about your fiction?  Should you ignore masks and political mayhem or incorporate those?  If you do, will your fiction grow dated or will it survive to be read for decades, maybe centuries?

Writers of historical stories, future stories and fantasy may be congratulating themselves right now on sidestepping this issue, but not so fast.  All fiction is written from an author’s personal perspective, and that perspective is necessarily influenced by an author’s own era.  How could it not be, when an author’s sensibility is already subject to childhood experiences, traumas, temperament and more?  The times influence all of us, authors no less than others.

Consider: SF written in the 1950’s often springs from 1950’s worries and ideas about the future—ideas that today can feel almost quaint.  Historical fiction written in the 20th Century can sometimes celebrate a social order that today we recognize as white-, male- and Euro-centric.  Remember the serial killer craze of the 1990’s?  Or the glitz-n-glitter novels of the 1980’s?  Cyberpunk?  Chic Lit?  Noir detectives?  Sweet Valley High?  Without meaning to novels can wear shoulder pads, sip pink champagne, or sink into existential despair.  Few authors intend for their novels to become fodder for nostalgia, but time is not always kind.

If you can’t escape your times as an author, can you at least mitigate the effect of your era on your stories?  Should you even try?  Or—more horrifyingly—what if your sensibility actually is contributing to our social ills, not out of malice but because we cannot help but be blinkered?  Are novels being written today unwittingly perpetuating attitudes that in ten, twenty, or fifty years readers may view with disgust and alarm?  Are you possibly contributing to the current polarization of our society by writing in the first person?


The Social Responsibility of Authors

Think about it.  Fiction is a component of culture, and its creators bear responsibility for the culture in which we live, and there is no question that our world right now is highly, dangerously polarized.  We may think of this as a political trend born of demographic and economic forces—a condition ameliorated by truthful, sensitive and inclusive novels.  Isn’t that how it works?

Not necessarily.  No writer thinks that he or she is perpetuating evil.  All writers imagine that they are opening eyes and hearts to our common humanity.  But is that always true?  (I’m getting my Porter Anderson on here.)  Consider the long-term perspective offered by Robert D. Putnam in his recent book The Upswing (S&S, 2020).

In this work of social and political history, Putnam begins by citing Tocqueville’s depiction of America in the 1830’s as a place where individualism was balanced by community and common purpose.  By the end of the 19th Century we had The Gilded Age, the apotheosis of selfishness and class inequality.  The 20th Century then introduced sixty years of reform and social leveling before the 1970’s ushered in what has now become a New Gilded Age, the age of billionaires and the rest of us.

Essentially, Putnam says, our society has swung from “we” to “I” to “we” and back again to “I”, which is where we are now, a “YOYO” (you’re own your own) time of rights demands, tribal exclusivity, cultural narcissism and the elevation of individual fulfillment.  Follow your dream.  Stay true to yourself.  Gig gratification.  Among the many pieces of evidence and data cited by Putnam is a linguistic study showing that—get ready for this–from 1900 to 1965 the word “we” predominated strongly over the word “I”, but after that the frequency of the word “I” nearly doubled between 1965 and 2008.

Going Timeless

Uh-oh.  Well, perhaps I’m stretching a point but it’s still a point.  Fiction necessarily reflects its times and the orientation of its authors is necessarily subject to the influence of their times.  That means you.  So why, then, do some long-gone authors whose work today is worthy of, or require, annotated editions—the writing of Mary Shelley [2], Conan Doyle [3] and H.P. Lovecraft [4] come to mind—continue to feel to us not retro but relevant?

How did those authors then—and how may authors today—write stories that might someday require footnotes but which at the same time never stop speaking to us in ways that we understand, need, value and even cherish?  Charles Dickens wrote about the social issues of his times, but wrote stories for us too.  Same for Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck, Kingsley Amis, Harper Lee and many other authors whose work was both timely and remains timeless.

It may seem that fabulist and futuristic approaches may circumvent the influence of the times, yet the stories of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Margaret Atwood and many others are rooted in the anxieties of their days.  So, what gives?  Here’s the secret: What all writers of timeless stories have in common is not a rejection of contemporaneous details or epochal influence, but the creation of characters who are not just true to their worlds and themselves but are human in ways that are iconic and eternal.

It’s not about ignoring the times, that is, but knowing that people in our times—or even in the past or in made up times—are pretty much the same as they’ve always been and always will be—but more so.  Let’s look at how to do that in practical terms.

Characters for All Time

Here are some prompts pointing toward the development of timeless characters:

If your protagonist could embody only one human foible or virtue, which one?  What about secondary characters in your story?  What aspect of human nature does each secondary character epitomize?  Build that solidly into their behavior, speech and actions.

What would you say is your main character’s primary malady, madness, illusion, misbelief, lost cause, misguided crusade, shortcoming or blindness?  What is his or her bedrock strength, unshakable faith or quality of heart?  What would make those unmissable?

What is one way in which your protagonist is completely unlike anyone else?  Heighten that.  What can your protagonist do that no one else possibly can?  Make that the one thing that’s utterly necessary to the story’s good outcome.

Are their moments when your protagonist must show strength, bravery, compassion, insight or endurance?  Earlier, increase his or her weakness, fear, bias, blindness or immersion in his or her own woe, so that rising above requires genuine rising.

What happens that can only happen in this story, in this place, to this protagonist?  At the same time, this is something that happens to all of us, sometimes and in some way.  What would make it feel more like that?

In what happens in your story, discover an irony, add adventure, build in a mystery, weave a romance, have the past return, cloud the future (more than usual), test faith, bring in friends, sink your MC into isolation and abandonment, require inhuman effort, force failure and find a way to achieve not just resolution but triumph.

Your story is asking one of the great questions—which one?  If there is a common truth underlying your story, twist it.  Complicate the truth, subject it to local conditions and context, take away simplistic solutions.  Still, a great question hangs over your story…who sees that?  Who says it?  What’s the answer?

At the end of the story, show that things in society never really change—but people do.  Give us some goodness.  Therein lies hope

The Times Are Not the News

So, what about masks?  Should your characters wear them?  If you story is set specifically in 2020 or 2021, for good reasons, then there’s no way to portray those years without including their most visible symbols.  Nor is it wrong to let aspects of our times infuse your story.  That said, the news of the day will tend to date a tale.  Bad weather is one thing but Hurricane Zeta is another.  Contentious elections will be with us always, Kanye West will not.

The sweet spot are stories which do not ignore their times but embrace them, letting the story’s meaning flow not from its calendar years but from the eternal cycles of human experience.  You are an author born of your times, true, you can’t escape that, but the human heart beating in your stories can last forever.

In what way is your WIP inescapably of its times?  In what way is your protagonist nevertheless eternally human?

About Donald Maass [5]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [6]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [7], The Fire in Fiction [8], Writing the Breakout Novel [9]and The Career Novelist [10].