Saturday, October 12, 2013

Authors Who Don't Understand Their Characters

One of the greatest challenges to writing historical fiction is understanding your characters. People who lived in a different time and place had completely different morals, concerns, challenges, and goals. 

Many authors think they can read a list of facts, plug them in to an already designed plot, and that's all it takes to make an accurate story. It's not enough. We have to get down to the heart of why our characters did what they did and why they cared about the things they cared about.

This topic is on my mind because of a fictional book I'm reading about Marie Laveau, the main character of my WIP. (I won't name names.) It's clear the author did her research into 19th century New Orleans, Marie, and voodoo.

However, she doesn't seem to have an understanding of voodoo as a religion. Since voodoo was Marie's life, this means she does not have an understanding of her main character, and therefore couldn't write an accurate story.

For instance, there's a scene in the book when, during a ceremony, a priest rips a live chicken apart and Marie eats the heart raw, wiping the blood off her mouth afterwards. (Gross.)

I can see why she put that in the book. Voodoo ceremonies usually include blood sacrifices, and chickens are used in many of their rituals. Reports of ceremonies in 19th century New Orleans include details about the gruesome deaths of chickens. But there's a reason behind these actions, and if the author doesn't understand them, it seems that Marie and her followers are disgusting and barbaric.

First off, you can't trust anything written about voodoo during Marie's lifetime. Racial and religious persecution was so rife that you have to take everything they say with a grain of salt... or perhaps a cup of salt.

Here's what the author doesn't understand:

Voodoos use chickens as spiritual sponges. They're meant to soak up impurities. I saw a video from Africa of women rubbing chickens along an initiate's body to cleanse her as preparation to becoming a priestess. Afterwards, they break the neck of the chicken and then dispose of it; since the chicken is full of negative spiritual energy, it's considered unsafe to eat.

These chickens shouldn't be confused with blood sacrifices. Voodoos believe the spirits they worship need to be fed, and since blood is the source of life, it is the most nourishing of offerings. They might kill an animal such as a goat, drain the blood, and ceremoniously offer the blood to the spirits. Afterwards, they cook the animal and eat it. 

In another video I watched, a priestess explained that everyone drains blood from animals before they eat them. Most people just throw it away; voodoos offer it to altars. Why do people make such a big deal out of it?

Non-believers in 19th century New Orleans saw what seemed to them a violent, bloody ceremony and judged it to be barbaric and evil. The author I described earlier, who didn't want to depict her main character as barbaric, wrote that she hated the ceremony and even went so far as to say she hated most voodoo worship. You can't become the most renowned leader of a world-wide religion by hating your own belief system. 

Instead of writing how the author would have felt in Marie's situation, she should have dug deeper to find out how Marie would have felt. It's like the old saying; you can't understand someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes.

We cannot walk in our characters' shoes, unfortunately (how cool would that be?). We can only keep an open mind and do enough research to get past the who, what, when, and where, and come to understand the why.


  1. Excellent post--and fascinating detail!

  2. Love this post (thanks for alerting me to it, Vicky!). As you say, of course it's impossible to understand, really understand, the lives of people in past times or in any culture very different from our own, but we should try to get as close as possible. Thanks for expressing it so well!


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