Problematic Past Characters

Around about two years to a year and a half ago, I was struggling to write a Regency historical romance between a fairly major character in Pearl and a character I’d written in an earlier incarnation of Pearl and then cut when I rewrote the story.

At the time, I thought the story wasn’t working because there was no chemistry between these two characters. I thought I’d burnt myself out on Regency times in a way, having kind of immersed myself in the Georgian era for this fictional family I’d created, and maybe it was just time to move on to something else. Plus, although I love reading romances, they’re exceedingly hard to write because they’re essentially two plots–the external and the internal–and they each have their own beats that must be hit.

All of that is true, but I also had this pervasive sense that I was trying to write–and had written, in Pearl–something problematic. So, Miles Keegan was created because I needed a white English guy of decent birth to father two daughters with two different mothers. I wanted to write about girls connected by blood and family but who were different races and therefore, they’d be treated differently. I started out writing about the daughters, then wrote about Miles and his (freed black) wife, had that beta’d, put it aside, then wrote Pearl. It’s a better story that way.

But it’s extremely problematic: Miles Keegan runs a plantation his family owns, frees Pearl, then packs his family up and leaves. Pearl wants to find her brother, who was sold years ago, and she thinks that England is the best place to try to find him, so she continues working (for pay) for Miles, who helps her by writing to various organizations and agencies and whatnot for information.

Like, why was I trying so hard to make Miles seem sympathetic? He ran a plantation. He owned slaves. Okay, so he was helpful to a servant–it doesn’t make the “but he didn’t really mean it!” aspect to the story any better.

Four years ago, when the novella was published, I didn’t have the vocabulary to express this. I didn’t see how problematic that was–and to be clear, Miles and Pearl don’t cross any master/servant lines at all–and Pearl has a great deal of agency and she’s vibrant and determined all on her own.

I wanted to write a story set in an often-depicted historical period with diversity, with a tiny bit more realism than I’d read in every Georgian and Regency romance I’d imbibed. But when it came time to write a story about Miles marrying his second wife, there were more conversations about diversity in romances and in books in general around on the Internet.

I haven’t actually read Pearl since I self-published it, but I was thinking about it sort of vaguely a couple weeks ago and I was like, “Ugh. No. That’s why I didn’t want to write him a romance. Why was I trying to redeem him for? Because I needed him to be ‘a nice-ish guy?’ Like, he was awfully modern for Georgian England? Fuck that.”

(In fact, in thinking about it, Miles comes out…not well in “When Mary Left.” As my friend Emily would say, he is a fuckboy.)

I’m tinkering around with another story idea–a FrankenIdea, in fact–and I was thinking about how one of my characters, who was raised in Ireland by his Irish father and is not close with his posh-ish maternal English side of the family, thinks that he’s outside the (modern) class system in Britain. Yeah, he’s managing this countryhouse conversion/renovation/whatever for his mum’s family but there’s a lot about that kind of life he doesn’t understand–and although his family isn’t aristocratic, they were well off enough. They’re connected. And this character has benefited, no matter how outside of the class system he thinks he is.

And this is how I’m evolving in my understanding of writing characters and stories in the way I want to write them.

In happier news, I got through the legendarily awful registration system at my school and got the classes I wanted for summer and fall, yay!

Japan will begin a new era on May 1st. I might do a quick post on what the heck Japan’s eras are for then.

I got a 97/100 on one of my midterms, which were 2 two-page essays, which were done at home and were open notes, but I only had two evenings to write them. I messed up a bit in my APA in-text citations (I contend that APA has too many effin’ rules. Clearly, APA was devised by people who have too much time on their hands).

6 thoughts on “Problematic Past Characters

  1. Yay, good grades!! ^_^Ugh, I hate APA, and I had the bright idea to minor in journalism. Luckily, I didn't settle on a minor until my senior year, but it was still annoying to have to flip back and forth. Journalism and English are not really all that compatible. I didn't really find Miles problematic, but then he wouldn't really be as a minor character. At least, not in my opinion, though I agree about him being a ho. Lol! On one hand, he inherited the plantation, it was normal to have slaves, so I don't think he's unlikeable in that respect. On the other hand, he didn't free them immediately, profited off them, and really only freed them because his wife died. Still not unlikeable as a side character, but I can see how that's harder to swallow as a protagonist. Normal for the times, sure, but as a reader, I would totally be low-key thinking, \”but what about all those slaves tho,\” in the back of my head. I get what you're saying.


  2. Congratulations on the good grades! And yay to getting those classes (that can be a pain.) We are constantly learning as writers, and with the stronger push on diversity, things have changed. I don't read my own stories after they are published…well, except for the small blurbs for readings…because I know I did things 'wrong'. Or at least, I'd do them different now. I love all the thought you're putting into things, and the next story sounds amazing already.


  3. Woot on the grades! That's awesome!Ah, your writing struggles remind me of my own. With one of my WIPs, I now have an unsympathetic character that I had wanted to be the love interest. So much for that!


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