A Rule of One

KAB87110 The Nativity of the Virgin, detail depicting St. Anne washing her hands, from the Chapel of the Assumption, 1433-34 (fresco) (see 87109, 87079, 87075, 87069,87027) by Uccello, Paolo (1397-1475) fresco Duomo, Prato, Italy Italian, out of copyright

The Nativity of the Virgin, by Uccello, Paolo (1397-1475)
Italian, out of copyright

Hand washing. I’ll come back to it.

I have this theory. Or maybe it’s just an idea. It’s about the advantages you give your characters. And how many advantages you can give them without distracting from the story or making them unbearable.

Advantages? Beauty is one, and very common; but there’s also intelligence, skill, charm, grace, wit, fortune, discernment, athletic ability, good birth, kind parents, a person who encourages them to follow their dreams, etc. All of these things are wonderful. But most people don’t get to have them all. And if you write a character who does get them all, it’s sort of cheating.

This is particularly important in writing historical fiction, or fantasy set in an historically inspired context (it works for SF too, but to keep things simple I’m limiting my scope). It is easy, and tempting, to create a character who is ahead of her/his time: “You fools, feudalism is doomed! Let us storm the castle and demand the birth of democracy!” A reader may want to sympathize with a character who partakes of our sensibilities more than he does of those of his time, but some writers leave out any clue as to where that vision came from. Did the character emerge from the womb with her/his political aspirations fully formed? This stuff has to come from somewhere (Mary Todd Lincoln, who would probably have run for office if she hadn’t been a well-raised Southern belle in the 1850s, and stood behind her husband all the way to the White House and the Civil War, learned to value politics–and competition–by vying for her father’s attention with her 13 siblings).

Once you’ve opened the door to a character having a different attitude from the people around her/him the temptation is to give the character skills or gifts they couldn’t possibly have–or couldn’t have for the reasons we have them. Example: in Sold for Endless Rue I have two characters–an herbalist-healer and her apprentice–who are known for their skill, particularly in midwifery. And I wanted them to have a better than average track-record with live births and deliveries, so I had them wash their hands. Simple, right? Since Ignaz Semmelweis started talking up asepsis and hand-washing in the 1840s, incidence of maternal death from childbed fever has plummeted. Only my story takes place in 1205 or so, when germ theory was not dreamt of. So why would these women wash their hands each time they change tasks, before they touch a patient and after? The older woman, the teacher, was taught by her teacher that one should never bring the dust of one task to another lest they mingle. It’s a superstition that just happens to work out in the favor of their patients. And a modern reader can read that and think, aha! Asepsis! without Crescia and Laura having to have a conversation about washing away these tiny invisible carriers of disease…

So that’s my rule of one. You can give your character one advantage that no one else in the story has–if you can make a convincing case for it. But don’t try to give her/him two or three unless you want them climbing to the top of the barricades, waving a flag and singing the Marseilleise.



About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


A Rule of One — 10 Comments

  1. You can get away with it if your style supports it. Pat Rothfuss makes millions a year with his Kvothe, who does everything perfect, the first try. And his eyes even glow like jewels!

    • Because we know from page 1 that he fails. You can buy a lot of achievements that the reader knows will tragically fail and become worthless. It’s another way of doing it.

  2. Or Ayla, in Clan of the Cave Bear. She and/or Jondalar invents freaking EVERYTHING. I like your rule

    • That is probably one of the reasons I got about 20 pages into Cave Bear before I got distracted by something else. Everything perfectly, first try? Meh. Though I like the eyes glowing like jewels.

      • CAVE BEAR was profoundly annoying. I remember the scathing review in the POST, some years ago, of a medieval historical. The nuns were all feminists. The reviewer was merciless.

  3. I’m having serious troubles with this very thing with the protagonist of Bohemian Gospel by Dana Chamblee Carpenter’s 13th century middle-europa protagonist, Mouse. Not only does she have all the other powers beyond her power of healing, she knows about disinfecting wounds and instruments, and NOT bleeding, etc. So far at least, there’s no explanation as to why she knows to this, other than the assumed because she possesses supernatural powers. Nor do we know why she possesses supernatural powers, though one can make a highly informed guess, via the many clues in the text.

    And perhaps that’s why I’m not liking this novel as much as I thought I might — particularly for this time of the year. It’s all limited 3rd person pov, her pov, and she’s not that interesting, in spite of being ms. thing. Did I mention she’s also very beautiful and all men lust for her?

    • To clarify, this is yet another fantasy novel passing as historical fiction. No clues on the marketing that this is fantasy, not straight up HF. Nor is it from a fantasy imprint.

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  5. Well, there’s always Sir Harry Paget Flashman – an excellent horseman, a superb linguist, dashing with the ladies, charming when he wants to be, and physically strong and a superior fighter when he must. But still a very amusing character because his flaws so badly outweigh his advantages…