I need historical fiction about hard-to-sympathize-with protagonists.
February 21, 2021 10:06 AM   Subscribe

There's a story rattling around in my head that I really want to write, but I'm having trouble with the protagonist's motivations.

The problem is that this story -- it's a real thing that happened -- involves people who believed they were divinely inspired, and I'm having trouble drawing a portrait of their motivations that rings truly and sympathetically to a modern reader who doesn't believe in any of that sort of thing. The historical story is very interesting but the religious fervor at its core is hard for me to get my arms around, psychologically.

I know one way to do it would be to have the narrator be someone who was in the orbit of these leaders, rather than the leaders themselves, and I'll consider that. But in the meantime I'd like to get inspired by how other authors have given voice to historical characters who (1) aren't necessarily sympathetic from a modern perspective, or who (2) ultimately failed in their mission. I'm sure there are plenty but I'm drawing a blank.
posted by fingersandtoes to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Does Wolf Hall fit the bill? The way Cromwell is portrayed is very interesting - in some ways he is more "modern" than a lot of other characters in the story and that tends to make him more sympathetic. In other ways though - not so much.
posted by crocomancer at 10:13 AM on February 21, 2021 [7 favorites]

Have you seen the new John Brown miniseries?
posted by corb at 10:41 AM on February 21, 2021

The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth
posted by ejs at 10:42 AM on February 21, 2021

I wouldn't think of it as religious fervor, specifically; any fervor will do. And fervor is eternal. Have you had friends in really intense political groups? Known activist vegans? Heard about or been around communes/collectives/etc gone wrong? Been evangelized at by people who believe sugar or GMO wheat or etc is horribly damaging us? Read about or talked to folks who insist that [nuclear power, permaculture, satellite internet, etc] is The Thing that is literally going to change/save the entire world? Or who insist that nuclear power, etc, will destroy us all and must be immediately shut down at any cost?

Met someone who suffers from Morgellons? Or claims, with or without justification, that a tick bite destroyed their entire life?

Been around anyone who genuinely believes they are fated for something? (More commonly admitted by actual celebrities--I assume in past centuries, Beto O'Rourke would have declared to the world that he was anointed by God, rather than tell a magazine he was the next Obama--but sometimes you get this with normal ambitious people. Sometimes it's as simple as believing in the idea of one's soulmate.)

To my mind, these are all psychological states that can mimic religiosity, and that in past times may have been channeled in that direction.

The trick is to write someone who is at a level of fervor where they are highly motivated, but still rational enough for the average reader to want to go along. Perspective characters who cross over into delusional are usually not interesting to the audience, or helpful on an artistic level. If you think the people at hand are pretty much delusional, then it might help to have someone who is just back from that line (but still in their circle) as the perspective character.
posted by desert outpost at 10:52 AM on February 21, 2021 [3 favorites]

You might enjoy taking a look at the reboot of Perry Mason on Netflix. This story is set in Los Angeles in the forties and hews closely to the life of Aimee Semple MacPherson and the Angelus Temple. Also the life of Fatty Arbuckle is alluded to and probably will be covered in more detail if the series progresses. It's a nice compendium of politics, greed, celebrity against a backdrop of the gradual urbanization of Southern California. A lot of interesting, intricate local detail about the culture endemic to Los Angeles and not really anything like the historical tv character of Perry Mason.
posted by effluvia at 10:58 AM on February 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

Adding that for me, believing that reaching new extremes of low weight would save my entire life was my encounter with misguided, damaging, and failed fervor. Believing that a gender transition would fix a whole lot, and wouldn't ruin my life in the process, was my experience with an anxious fervor that did in fact deliver me home. If a personal example would help.
posted by desert outpost at 10:59 AM on February 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm not 100% sure this fits the bill, but An Instance of the Fingerpost has three protagonists, each of which is sort of adjacent to a central series of events that would have been pretty boring if narrated straight by other, closer parties. There's some other aspects of what you are looking for as well, and it's a cracking read to boot.

Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls has a bit of this, especially as concerns some of the figures in the war the main character takes part in.

If you're willing to take on something truly extraordinary but perhaps very relevant, consider Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner. The story is about two brothers raised in different churches, one a Calvinist who believes himself to be "justified" in the strict theological sense of that because he is predestined for heaven, whatever he does is by definition good — though this does not exactly pan out properly. This is one of the strangest and most wonderful books of the 19th century, and that's saying something. The protagonists are definitely hard to get a read on. The Broadview edition has a very helpful intro to the era (18th c. Scotland).
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:20 AM on February 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: desert outpost, you're right we're surrounded by deluded evangelicals of various sorts all around us. I think part of my trouble is that in my real life I find such folks extremely offputting; I don't spend time with them as a person, and wouldn't want to spend time with them as a reader. I need to find the "something" in there that IS sympathetic and appealing, somehow... the characters I'm writing about were famously charismatic, so something must have struck a chord with a lot of people. (I'm a cynical person who tends to instantly dislike run of the mill "charismatics"; maybe this is my problem.)

So maybe that's an additional part of the ask that needs clarifying: I'm looking for stories of people who were thought of as very charismatic and convincing in their time, but who were flawed and/or failed.

I'll def give Wolf Hall another look, as well as the other suggestions here I'm not familiar with, thanks.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:21 AM on February 21, 2021

I agree that looking at other forms of fanaticism may help you. I suggest Alexander Berkman's Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. It's memoir rather than historical fiction, but obviously he is seeking to present his actions in the most palatable light. Berkman, a lover of Emma Goldman, attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, one of Andrew Carnegie's worst henchmen, in reprisal for the murder of strikers at Homestead, and ended up spending several years in prison.
posted by praemunire at 11:24 AM on February 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding Wolf Hall, and also recommending Maria McCann’s As Meat Loves Salt.
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 11:39 AM on February 21, 2021

I’d try James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. The book looks at a number of deeply religious people and has long passages narrated by some of them, including the protagonist’s stepfather, who sees his own pretty horrendous actions as following what God wants. Baldwin is of course a masterful writer, and even if I can’t completely sympathize with this character, I felt I understood him better. The novel came out in 1953 and takes place in the 1930s, so I’m not sure if it fits your definition of historical fiction.
posted by FencingGal at 11:59 AM on February 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's not fiction, but I found Williams James' The Varieties of Religious Experience fascinating, as a non-religious person who had no conception of what a religious experience might be like. If the people in your story sincerely believe they are divinely inspired, reading about what religious experiences felt like to various real people who really believed in some religion could help you imagine yourself into the minds of your characters.
posted by Redstart at 12:23 PM on February 21, 2021 [3 favorites]

The historical novel St Peter's Snow by Leo Perutz vividly depicts a fundamentalist movement, and analyses both the psychological and the physiological causes. And it was banned by the Nazis, which is always a recommendation.
posted by MinPin at 12:51 PM on February 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

Hildegarde von Bingen was a polymath (and one of my favorite arts), abbess, and mythic. She was a liberal arts/humanities triple threat (for her era + in modern context - she pulled a lot* of work) - at one point she had been hesitant to continue with her education, as it was not a "womanly" thing to do. I believe a priest pushed her forward. Hadn't she done this, many of her notable works (eg. L. Scivas) may not have been carried through history or received the same attention. She believed she was divinely inspired, many feminist supporters view her as a harbinger for women in academia. (She also has a few pieces that resemble the vulva, if I recall correctly. Just fyi.)

If she hasn't had the inspiration from theology to carry forward, her influence may not have been felt. There are many resources regarding her work available, the bit I just cited is from the Feminism piece from Oxford's Very Short Introductions (super digestible series, if someone is new to or revisiting a topic- the name of the minister or priest who encouraged her is in the same chapter)
posted by firstdaffodils at 12:57 PM on February 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Grenouille doesn't think of himself as a murderer. He simply takes the most valuable essence of a person and discards the husk. He ultimately answers to his Art. The author did a remarkable job of describing the world from Genouille's perspective and explaining why his motivations are incomprehensible to the world around him.
posted by SPrintF at 1:13 PM on February 21, 2021

Best answer: Thomas More was very strongly religiously motivated and features in a range of historical fiction, including A Man for All Seasons. Wolf Hall was written in part in opposition to the usual depictions of More and Cromwell. Thinking about Cromwells, something featuring Oliver Cromwell might be helpful.
posted by plonkee at 1:27 PM on February 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

(addendum: as far as 'flaws' are concerned, HVB had been considered to have experienced "visions" (of which she wrote and had been inspired to work by length) thru acute or extreme migraines. Not non-fict, but possibly inspiring, esp in combination with some of the above. Because of the era, some people were skeptical, some not. She definitely was not a failure, but a complex person nonetheless)
posted by firstdaffodils at 1:44 PM on February 21, 2021

I think corb might be referring to the Showtime's miniseries adaptation of The Good Lord Bird which is about John Brown (but told through perspective of a fictional person in his orbit)
posted by dismas at 1:47 PM on February 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

For some reason the first book your question brought to my mind was one I read years ago in college, Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown. Published in 1798, it's based on a true story where a man thought he was hearing the voice of God commanding him to kill his whole family as a test of his faith. It's told from the perspective of the man's sister, I believe. It's not exactly flawlessly done, but it left an impression on me!
posted by saramour at 2:34 PM on February 21, 2021

It might be little further out there than you want to go, but I thought of Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru. I despaired of describing the book quickly, so I found a Slate review that includes
...the first in a series of desert visionaries that also includes a 19th-century Mormon moving west in search of silver and a 1940s engineer seeking succor for the despair he feels at his partial responsibility for the bombing of Hiroshima. This latter figure, called Schmidt, thinks aliens will someday arrive and teach us how to be good; he hooks up with a would-be guru who attracts a hoard of UFO chasers and, in their wake, a hippie commune.
The review has spoilers without too much detail. I mention the book because I didn't think it patronized the people mentioned above.
posted by kingless at 2:52 PM on February 21, 2021

Not a book suggestion, but have you considered writing it from the perspective of the supernatural being driving them? The being could either be malevolent, or beneficent but misunderstood.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:54 PM on February 21, 2021

The 2018 novel The Icendiaries by R. O. Kwon is almost what you are asking for, except it is not a historical novel - it is set in the present. It is about a young woman who becomes involved with a violent anti-abortion group.
posted by JonJacky at 4:33 PM on February 21, 2021

To better understand how people driven by religious faith felt, I would immerse myself in books written when faith was normal. Foxe’s Martyrs, Charlotte M. Yonge’s quiet Victorian novels, Dostoevsky.

That’s not the same as learning to write it in a way that’s acceptable to modern unbelievers. But- if you describe something you don’t believe in using models selected to be palatable to outsiders - it seems unlikely to me that you’ll be describing the thing itself.

Westover’s Educated, maybe.
posted by clew at 7:02 PM on February 21, 2021

Iain Banks' Whit is one of my favorite books. Banks as far as i know was an atheist, but his characters are believeable.
posted by 15L06 at 9:54 PM on February 21, 2021

Best answer: Try Destiny of Fire (French title: Les Brûlés) by Zoe Oldenbourg. It's from 1960 and written about the community of Cathars in 13th century Languedoc, whom the French crown considered heretics to be stamped out. Everyone in it is motivated by religion in some way. I'm not religious, but I read it avidly and still remember it.

The author being a woman helps, I think. At least 2 of the protagonists are courageous, self-driven women. Cathar women were responsible for their own spiritual journey, and could preach, teach and hold religious office.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:30 PM on February 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Well Margaret Sanger was a...complex character. And reasonably unlikeable despite the advances she made for women's reproductive rights, and with many beliefs that don't sit well today at all. The book Terrible Virtue -- a fictionalized account of her life -- is excellent reading, however. I believe the author (Ellen Feldman) spent about 10 years getting her head wrapped around how to write about Sanger.
posted by sonofsnark at 10:20 PM on February 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

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