From time to time, writers need to protect their characters against knowledge or technology that could wreak havoc in their fictional worlds. For example, in a suspense story when your protagonist is in jeopardy, how do you keep her from pulling out her cell phone and calling the police? Is your plot is built around searching for a person from the past? Your book will only be long enough for your main character to search on Google or Facebook.
This seems to be an increasingly common issue for the fiction writer. Sometimes we need our characters to be more innocent than our readers, and often the solution to the problem is to set the story in the past. This is not always motivated by the desire to portray a certain moment in history, but sometimes to avoid the complications of current events.
I’ve found myself doing this on several occasions. Recently, I wrote a story set in France that tangentially deals with a priest abusing a child. I didn’t want the issue to be front and center in the story, the way it would be if my main character had been exposed to years of news reports, although I knew readers would likely put the pieces together. My solution was to set the story in 1996. This gave me the side benefit of bringing in the beginning of globalization and the economic effects of the formation of the EU on ordinary people in France, without having to acknowledge the recent economic collapses.
I’ve read a number of novels that end just before September 11, 2001, which has become a dividing line in our recent history (The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud comes to mind.) There was the world, culture, worldview and lifestyle before that date, and then after. Many novels tiptoe up to that Tuesday and then stop, almost as if to say to the reader, “we all know what comes next, so no need to keep going.” Others end with the historical events and a bit of aftermath (The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman.) Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Bleeding Edge, due in September 2013, takes place in “2001 in New York City, in the lull between the collapse of the dot-com boom and the terrible events of September 11th…”
There is a double benefit for the author in these situations. The problematic knowledge or technology can be avoided, and at the same time, the reader knows something about the character’s future world that the character is not privy to. Readers like this feeling of omniscience, of foreknowledge, of being smarter than everybody else. The same way we have the urge to scream, “Don’t open that door!” in a horror movie, when a character in a book tells his friend about his trip from Boston to Los Angeles the next day, and it’s September 10, 2001, we want to yell, “Don’t get on that plane!”
Have you ever set a story in the past in order to avoid a historical event, a technological development, or some other problematic fact in the “real world?”
Rachel Unkefer is a founding member and current president of WriterHouse. Her fiction has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Prime Number Magazine, and elsewhere. Her own blog languishes at rachelunkefer.com while she writes this guest post.