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Revolutions Sometimes Go Backwards: Anachronism and Historical Accuracy in Pirates of the Caribbean Fanfic

by Melusina




While I value research and historical accuracy, I sometimes think that realism is overrated.  Hamlet isn't exactly a realistic depiction of medieval Danish court life.  The Three Musketeers bears only a superficial resemblance to the real 17th century.  Real life is both more prosaic and significantly less dramatic than fiction. (I can't help but think of Hob Gadling talking about Renaissance Faires in The Sandman - "You know what's wrong with this place? Well, the first thing that's wrong is there's no shit. I mean, that's the thing about the past that people forget. All the shit. Animal shit. People shit. Cow shit. Horse shit. You waded through the stuff.... You should spray 'em all with shit as they come through the gates." - when we write about the past, we mostly leave out the shit.)

 Even realistic fiction is not reality.  Characters in books, movies and tv shows often behave very differently from real people.  The best story is not always the one that most closely duplicates life.  Naturalism can, in fact, be a huge bore, and compelling narratives are often wildly improbable.  Historical accuracy and plausibility are important, but the best authors privilege what's interesting and engaging over what's accurate every time.

 Certainly this is what the writers of Pirates of the Caribbean did.  The movie is riddled of anachronisms. The historical errors are part of the overblown, swashbuckling style and don't really bother me all that much.  And because anachronism is canon, some kinds of anachronisms don't bother me much in PotC fic.  For myself, I've found that impeccably researched and incredibly accurate stories often lose some of the flavor of the movie, while some that play fast and loose with history often feel more canonical.  As a writer, I sometimes engage in deliberate anachronism in Pirate fic, as a way of keeping to the tone of the movie.

 Because the historical period of the movie is unclear, I'm less fussed about historical details that are too late/too early, but still not modern.  There's been lots of discussion about exactly when the movie takes place (scroll down this page, compiled by elke_tanzer, for some suggestions about different criteria and what dates each suggests).   My default setting for pirate fic is 1720, in an AU in which the Port Royal earthquake never happened. But I'm willing to accept costuming and technology from about 1650 - 1800 (or even a muddle from various periods) because that's exactly what the movie does.

 I'm willing to forgive some anachronisms and historical errors if the writing is otherwise good.  Small details bother me less than the overall feel of the piece. I've been struggling with how to define "feel," and all I can really say is, I know it when I see it. There are stories that have no glaring anachronisms but the dialogue and character interactions are modern in subtle ways that grate on my nerves, and there are stories that get some of the details completely wrong, and yet capture the feel of the period anyway.

 On the other hand, obviously modern details/dialogue/character interactions do bother me quite a bit.  While some anachronism is forgivable, I do think it's important to get a general feel for the period.  In part, this is simply good characterization - these characters are the product of their time, after all, and so their dialogue, internal monologues, and behavior are all dictated by the social mores and conventions of that time. 

It occurs to me that, in many ways, genre conventions intersect with historical fact to create the parameters for historical accuracy.  We have expectations of the movie based on our ideas about swashbuckling stories, stories about the supernatural, romances, etc. - the original writers were able to play with historical facts to the degree that the changes fit the conventions of those genres.  This is why PotC ends, in the grand tradition of romances and fairy tales, with the poor-but-honest hero marrying the princess Governor's daughter, despite the fact that there's no way in hell the real-life, 18th century equivalent of Governor Swann would have allowed his daughter to marry a blacksmith.  The audience will (for the most part) buy this glossing of the class issues in a way that we wouldn't have if Verbinski had cast Morgan Freeman as Governor Swann. Casting a black actor as the Governor would be jarring in a way that ignoring the class issues in the romance isn't.

Fanfiction set in this same universe may or may not fall into the same genre classifications as the movie, and the way you tell your story will affect the degree of historical accuracy your readers expect, as well as the kind of historical accuracy they expect.  A dark horror story will be able to play fast and loose with a different set of facts than a farcical romance, but either way, the best course of action is to be familiar with the historical realities and only change what's necessary to make your story work.  In other words, the best approach to anachronism is to do it knowingly and with a specific intent. 

Getting historical details like costuming and technology right is actually relatively easy - permetaform has compiled a wonderful list of web resources here.  Another great reference is The Timetables of History by Bernard Grun - a collection of tables detailing various kinds of developments (History/Politics, Literature/Theatre, Religion/Philosophy/Learning, Visual Arts, Music, Science/Technology/"Growth," and Daily Life) from the end of the Paleolithic period (yearly info starts in 1 CE) to 1990 (later editions may include more recent years as well).  It's useful both for getting a quick summary of the major events of a given year (for example, I just discovered that, in 1698, paper was first manufactured in North America), and for quickly discovering when something happened (I subsequently used the index to pinpoint the exact year Hamlet was written).

What's harder than getting all those picky historical details right is getting into historical characters' heads and recreating the way people of that time would have spoken and thought.  We are so immersed in our own post-modern, post-Freudian, secular world view that it's sometimes difficult to separate ourselves from that and realize that 18th century people were not simply people-just-like-us in funny clothes - they really did think about the world in different ways  (of course, one of the joys of fiction is connecting with characters from different times and places and discovering the ways in which they were just like us, but that loses its impact if the story is not grounded in a real understanding of all the ways in which those characters differ from us).

The first step to making your characters feel like they really belong in the 18th century is to strip them of modern language and thought patterns.  As an example, I've drawn up a quick list of modern ideas that I see crop up in Pirate fic on a regular basis (I'm sure we could all think of other anachronistic ideas to add to this list).  These ideas may or may not be completely alien to the characters (many of these concepts were beginning to take shape at this time); some of the characters (especially the pirates) may share some of these sentiments to some degree or another, but they were not givens at that time, the way they are (one hopes) now.  In a non-AU pirate fic, a character who espoused these principles wouldn't fit into polite society very well, and one who acted on them would sacrifice much of what was considered a "normal life" at that time.

  1. "All men are created equal" - Despite the casual treatment of class issues in the movie, class was incredibly important in the 18th century.  The idea that property owners and men of certain families were entitled to play a larger role in government and to have a larger share of the wealth, property and other goodies was still firmly entrenched.  Not that there weren't people arguing against this notion, but they were widely perceived (even by those who might have benefited from their ideas) as na´ve dreamers at best, and possibly as dangerous revolutionaries (the best comparison I can think of is the way more extreme animal rights activists are viewed in modern society).  There are obvious and important class differences between Swann/Elizabeth/Norrington (and his lieutenants, I suppose) and most of the other characters in the film, as well as more subtle class distinctions.  Note, this doesn't mean that you can't write, say, Swann/Estrella, but the likelihood of him marrying her is exactly nil.  The best she could hope for is for him to support any child she conceived - it wouldn't be unheard of for her to be turned out without a reference in the event of a pregnancy.
  2. The Civil Rights Movement - Racism was institutionalized, in the form of slavery.  The abolition movement was becoming more prominent, but even those who opposed slavery would, for the most part, have viewed non-Europeans as innately inferior.  Of course general ideas about race were often set aside in specific interactions, and race relations are very, very complex.  But all the characters would be conscious, to some degree or another, of race and its implications.
  3. Feminism - Gender inequality was also institutionalized.  Married women were treated by the law as an extension of their husbands and had no property rights, couldn't sign contracts, etc.  Wealthy widows had slightly more autonomy under the law, but not much.  There were very strict expectations of "appropriate" behavior for women.  It's not impossible that someone like Elizabeth could thwart those expectations (after all Anne Bonny and Mary Read did), but not without a significant cost.
  4. The Sexual Revolution - Did people get up to No Good?  Hell, yeah!  (Just read Les Liaisons Dangereuses.) But appearances were kept up to a large degree, and the penalties for getting caught could be severe.  Flaunting illicit sexual connections (especially homosexual ones) didn't happen in polite society.  It's unlikely that Jack and James' torrid affair would be common knowledge in Port Royal and viewed fondly by the populace.
  5. Freudian Psychology - Yeah, Shakespeare wrote Hamlet's Oedipal complex in 1600, but nobody knew to call it that until Freud wrote about the Family Romance in the early 20th century.  The majority of the language we use to discuss our emotions is incredibly modern.  18th century characters should not discuss their emotional lives in these terms.  In fact, long, analytical discussions about everyone's feeeeeelings are a fairly modern development.  It's more likely that James would reflect on his spiritual development than spend much time wondering if his father's emotional abandonment is the root of his fear that Jack will leave him for Anamaria.  Note:  this doesn't mean that you can't use modern psychology as you write your characters and their motivations, just that they shouldn't be aware of the Freudian underpinnings of their behavior.

Once you've banished all these modern concepts, how do you fill your characters heads with appropriately period thoughts?  I like the_stowaway's suggestion of discovering when words entered common usage (the Online Etymology Dictionary is your friend here), and not using words that postdate the period you're working in - after all, language dictates thought to a large degree.  You can also fill your own head with period language and ideas by reading fiction written in or set in the 18th century, or by reading biographies of historical figures or other nonfiction about the period.  Although it predates the events of the movie some, I think pepysdiary is a good way to familiarize yourself with that milieu (Pepys' world is precisely the environment that would have shaped Governor Swann).

Does all of this really matter?  I suppose it depends on your audience, and how you want your story to be received.  Obviously, we all have different goals for different stories - does the smutty PWP drabble you scribbled out to cheer up your best pal have to be 100% historically accurate?  Probably not.  But if you're writing long, plotty stories that focus on character development, glaringly anachronistic behavior, speech or thoughts are going to seem ludicrous to many of your readers, and may prevent people from taking your work seriously.


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