Historical Worlds 7
Social Structure: The Family
Thus far in these columns we’ve discussed
a wide variety of elements which we, as writers of historical fiction, can describe for our readers as we build a picture
of the times in which our stories are set. There is the physical or geographic appearance of the land, the clothing and appearance
of the characters, the food they eat and the way they procure it, the tools they use, the language they employ and so on.
These are all important, but there is also a range of things that, in a sense, cannot be seem except in the behavior of characters.
These elements can be broadly classified as social structure, and they relate to
the institutions, or what one might call the building
blocks, of society.
All right, I can hear what you’re saying:
“I’m writing historical fiction, not sociology. This is a novel, not a textbook.”
Well, you’re absolutely right, of course,
and I am not trying to turn everyone into social scientists. However, as I have so often said before, our task as writers
of historical fiction is to create as true a feeling or sense as we can of what life was like for people living in the era
in which our stories are set, and being able to describe the structural elements of society – we don’t have to
analyze them – allows us to show a fuller representation.
Human societies are structured in a myriad different
ways. There are clans, lineages, extended families, socio-economic strata, political institutions and on it goes. Clearly,
we cannot show or explain every element of social structure, and nor would we want to – that would turn our story into
a textbook – but we can make some careful decisions about what to mention that will provide an understanding of the
social world in which our characters have their being. One aspect of social structure common to all human groups is the family.,
and, if relevant, showing how individuals live as members of a family can provide insights into their behavior.
Depending on the era and location of your story,
family can play a greater or lesser role in explaining people’s behavior. In the European aristocracy, for example,
the continuity of the family line and the consequent preservation of lands and fortunes was paramount. Marriages were arranged
to support this aim and the all-important transfer of aristocratic titles from one generation to the next was regulated by
an elaborate framework of law and customary practice. The family and its continuity came before all else.
The same imperatives were seen in pre-modern
China as well, although aristocratic titles were not a factor – the landowning aristocratic class in China had for all
practical purposes disappeared by the beginning of the 10th century CE. The generational continuity of the Chinese
family was reinforced by ancestor worship and the conviction that the family was ruled by the older generation and the older
generation was in its turn beholden to the dead ancestors.
So, what questions should we be thinking about
as we try to set our characters in the context of their family life?
To a certain extent, those questions depend on
the family situation itself. Is it a rich or poor family? Does it possess any political or economic power? How large is it,
and how far does the concept of the extended family reach? You can also consider questions such as who makes decisions and
how is the decision-making divided between men and women? Who holds the purse-strings, if any, and who is responsible for
the bringing up of children?
As you begin to answer these and similar questions
a picture will emerge of what family life was like for your characters and that life can be instrumental in building a view
of their world. In fact, many a novel and story has been written about the twists and tangles of family life itself with that
life as the center and prime mover of the plot. One needs only to read John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga to gain a clear picture of life in an upper middle-class English family in the early part of
the 20th century, or Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, to understand
the realities of family life in traditional China. The family is ubiquitous in human societies, and its variations endless.
As always, the same caveat applies to the element
of family life as to any other tool by which we seek to develop a picture of life for our characters in their particular historical
context: don’t overdo it. If family life lies at the heart of your story,
then you can add all the detail necessary, but if not, adding even a few points about the way families function can help bring
you characters and their lives into much clearer focus for your readers.