Lessons in Creative Writing from Deborah Harkness – Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of posts sharing what I learned from author Deb Harkness during a week-long Master Class at Hedgebrook. Here are part 1part 2 and part 3 in case you missed them.

The World card from the Visconti tarot deck

The World card from the Visconti tarot deck

Worldview: What it is and Why it’s Important
Deb began our fourth class with a question: How do you put it all together so that the whole of your writing is better than the sum of it’s parts? Her short answer was that it’s about balance, pacing and narrative flow. But in addition to that, it’s about the worldview of the characters in the book. In short, worldview answers this question: Can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand their motivations?

Deb referenced a blog post she read that said something to effect of a novel is nothing but an expanded lie. You have to trust the author and characters to buy into that lie. (If you know the source of this, please tell me and I’ll gladly give credit.)  This, she said, is integrity and authority, the context or drawing together of all the ingredients that allow you to see why a person did what they did.

Worldview is different for everyone. It is what makes up an individual person’s context. It consists of:

  • Who you are
  • Your parents
  • Your faith (or lack thereof)
  • Your education
  • Your situation

Fleshing out this list is very important to plotting and making your story work.

Character is the vehicle through which you reveal context. In historical fiction, decisions have to be consistent within the time period and as a character. Deb gave as an example the tendency of writers to use the world “infinite” when a character is looking up at the stars in the night sky. That might be fine for a contemporary story, but historically, no one believed the sky was infinite until well after 1800. In their worldview, it was contained and finite, and this was as it should be.

As writers, Deb said we need to stay really close to our characters. This will help us make their context more accurate. She suggested that when you’re faced with a plot problem, ask your character, “how do you know what you know?” Go through the bulleted list above and write out how those things influence why your character believes/does what they do.

Also, when you add in or subtract one of these elements of worldview, you need to know why. Even if it isn’t stated in the story, your reader will be able to tell. If you don’t know, try diagramming  your character’s decision making process.

When characters get too far out of alignment with their worldview, you start demolishing what you’ve build and you will run into a lack of plot.

Common Historical Fiction Worldview Misconceptions
As a historian, Deb says with certainty that there is no evidence that everyone in the past was filthy, uneducated, untraveled, and had a rough childhood, as Hollywood and many novels would have you believe. She said the stats were about the same then as today. So for a minority of people, that would be true. Maybe some of it would be true for others, and less and less as the social class of the person is higher.

Just because you find something novel and different from the way it would be today, doesn’t mean you need to describe it in your book. She used the example of novelists’ fascination with underwear from other time periods. “Unless your character was going to hide a letter in it, you don’t need to describe it to the reader.”

Another common thing is showing time period theories on the human body and how it works. Unless your character is the time period equivalent of a doctor, chances are good that’s not something they would think about.

For most of history, girls were not taught the classics, history or theology because those subjects where part of public life and public discussion, in which women did not participate. They were, however, taught astronomy, botany, sewing and drawing because these were considered adornments for private use. Things like this are important to consider when giving a female character an educational background.

Many things we take for granted wouldn’t have been known around the world at all times. For example, Plato’s works were not known in the west (at least in complete form) until the 15th century, so it would be incongruous to have a character refer to them earlier than that unless there was a specific reason he/she would have had access to that knowledge.

There was no such thing as Human Rights before the Enlightenment in the 18th century. People believed they were born where they were meant to be in society and they had a responsibility to their station (i.e. servants had a responsibility to serve). The presumption of equality of the classes (and sexes) didn’t happen until the 18th century.

In many times, women (excluding the elite) didn’t marry until they were in their 20s because their mates couldn’t afford it. Men needed to be in training/guilds until they were in their 20s. The nobility could, and usually did, marry younger.

Not everyone died young throughout history. If you survived infancy, pregnancy/childbirth if you were a woman or war/workplace accidents if you were a man,  your chances for living to be 60 – 80 were good. If you did, people usually attributed it to strong blood or being blessed by the gods.

Things to Consider When Creating Worldview

  • Beyond what they are personally exposed to, most people weren’t like to know history.
  • Class, sex and location all influence what a character can know. (i.e. news travels slower to remote areas)
  • Women were usually educated at home, so the education of their parents would determine how much they could learn unless a tutor was hired.

Remember that your readers are the audience for your characters actions, as are other characters. They each have their own worldview, which affects how they react in a scene or to a scene.

Plot tip: If you need characters to know something, remember that it’s hard to hide anything from servants or slaves. They actually have more power than you’d think because they have intimate access to those with authority.

This was for me, the most interesting of our discussions. I thought about some of this without realizing it, but never really made myself sit down and puzzle it all out. I will now!

Next week: Point of view and a lot of wrap up notes. This will be the last post in the series. I hope you’re enjoying it!

What do you think of Deb’s thoughts on worldview? What are your thoughts? Does knowing this information affect how you will read/write books in the future?