Wednesday, May 9, 2007

History in Monochrome

This mini-rant is inspired by my own recent efforts in the writing field. At the moment, Antonine Wall plotbunny aside, I'm working on a novel about Agricola's invasion of Caledonia in the late first century. Or rather, I'm writing about the people involved in the invasion, from both sides. My main POV characters range from Agricola and Calgacus themselves, to a young Caledonian warrior, a Roman legionary and his contubernium, and a novice Druidess. The idea is to sort of focus on each character's personal story as it relates to the "bigger picture". Think something along the lines of the POV technique used by George R. R. Martin in A Song of Ice and Fire, though not on such a mind-buggeringly epic scale.

It's turning out to be a very good way to write such a wide-scale story, as it gives me an opportunity to delve further into each character's psyche, showing their motivations instead of telling them. It also allows me to depict more clearly the strengths and flaws of each individual's personality. I've realised that although there are definitely some characters who can be classified as "goodies", inasmuch that they're decent people doing decent things in a decent way, I don't really have any "baddies". The nearest thing I have is Agricola, the leader of the invading army, but I'm hesitant to call my version of him a villain due to various factors that arise in the storyline. Since the story's told through the eyes of characters on both sides, it's hard to pin labels on any one of them. Agricola is an inspirational figure to most of his men, but evil personified to the Caledonians.

And it's something I'm quite proud of, given what I've seen of most historical novels that deal with Roman-Celtic relations. Granted, it's the classic story: the all-powerful, all-conquering army, unmatched by any force in the known world, and the people that fight to protect their own way of life and prevent conquest. I just wish authors wouldn't be so damn black-and-white about it. I've tried looking for novels set in Roman Britain, and most of the ones I've found are all about the poor, helpless, nature-loving Celts and their cruel subjugation by those EBUL, nasty, imperialistic Romans.

What happened to shades of grey? No society is perfect; people are people, no matter which race they belong to, and as such they're all fallible. Tolkien's Elves, to give a fictional example - the wisest, the oldest, the fairest - were still deeply flawed. Hell, the gods and goddesses of most cultures have their own fair share of personality flaws and petty vices, one of the things that makes their stories so interesting. Lots of leaders are cruel and power-hungry; a small minority actually do hold the people's interest at heart. Even good people can do bad things. Did the Votadini tribe give way to Roman rule because they were all avaricious, or did they do it because it would avoid bloodshed? Or even a combination of both?

So, yes, I'm feeling quite positive about my own work-in-progress. Both cultures are portrayed with their own balance of pros and cons, and, more importantly, the characters are all human beings. Human beings who just happen to be of either Roman or Caledonian heritage. So far, I'm managing to avoid one of the major pitfalls in writing historical fiction, and that can only be a good thing.

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