Making It Real –As They Live And Breathe

Sorry this is late.  I just woke up late after date-night with husband.  I think it’s part of the changes of this second-maturity that we have to figure out ways to relate to each other again.  Being that we’re both workaholics, we’d never actually see each other, if we didn’t make it a point to take time off together.  So, date night once or twice a week.  It usually involves walking in the park, or going to a museum.  Might or might not involve dinner, but involves going somewhere that serves coffee and tea.  And talking plots, because we’re workaholics and Dan is going to Nanowrimo.

Anyway… so.  Characters and how to make them real.

I’ll start by saying that I’m the least qualified person to teach you this, so if you don’t get some things, you should go ahead and ask, or say it’s somewhat different for other people.

You see, characters are the one thing I get for free.  Only they probably aren’t.  I probably learned to create characters through my lonely and bed-ridden childhood, by having not just imaginary friends but entire imaginary families and once a city, all with different personalities, because who wants to play with herself forever.  (Don’t answer that.  Also, go wash your mind out with bleach.  That’s not what I meant.)

However I’ve been in and out (I confess mostly out) of writers’ groups for twenty years, and I’ve taught so many workshops I’ve forgotten some, as well as having a number of mentees, so I am somewhat aware of how other people do this, and of tricks to get there.

Today we’re going to talk about how your characters aren’t like you, or aren’t necessarilly like you.  One of the biggest idiocies in writing is to condemn first-person writing (like the Wally did) because you assume someone writing first person is just writing themselves.  That is, in a way, a triumph in the story teller’s art that their character is so real they think it’s you.  (No, I’m not Athena.  That girl has issues that have come home carrying issues.)

However, it is a normal failing, and not just of newbie writers, and not just in first person, that you either think the character is you, or you bleed your opinions into the character even when they’re supposed to be the opposite.

What I mean is, for instance, I’ve seen writers who are lecturers in college trying to write someone who is … oh, a dishwasher repairman, say.  They invariably write this person as slow witted, or simple, or prejudiced, or–

This is a college professor’s view of dishwasher repairmen, and not how dishwasher repairmen would view themselves.  And it’s perfectly possible to write a smart and resourceful and non-bigoted dishwasher repairman.  Not being bookish doesn’t mean you’re sub-human, and many people who had no interest in tertiary education and counted themselves lucky to escape the enforced bookish learning of high school are highly observant, very good at spatial and mechanical reasoning, and THEY would think college professors are boring, a little mad, and bigoted in their own way.

It’s normal and human to judge others by what we are.  But just because someone fails in your area, you shouldn’t write them as dunces.  At any rate, even if they were, they wouldn’t THINK OF THEMSELVES as dunces.  But there is such an infinite variety of processing in the human mind that it’s impossible to say where dumb starts and just “really different” begins.

For a number of years my best friend was a physicist.  (I’m not sure we’re friends anymore, not because I don’t want to be, but because she’s closed herself off.  There are reasons.  But it doesn’t make it easier. This too feeds into characters, and to this also we’ll come back later.) She often could explain things I didn’t get in magazines and scientific reports, and translate it in layman’s terms.  And then one day I handed her an article in Reason which struck me as particularly significant.  I think it was on literary criticism.  She handed it back, because she said her mind didn’t bend that way and she couldn’t get it past the opening paragraph.  It was gibberish.  And then I had to translate it.

Which means, if you write a character who processes differently from you, respect that character. Imbue it with good qualities.  Try to look at the world through HIS eyes.  No one is perfect, and no one has the exact same preferences as you.

So, let’s start.  Some people interview characters for the role they want.  That’s fine if that’s how you do it.  If you’re like me there’s no story without character, and story starts with “first there is pain, which drives the character, which drives the plot.” And then I usually write a few chapters in which I’m getting to know the character, and after which I mostly discard those chapters and start again.

Either way let’s say you have a character who is different from you.  Learn them. Study how they’ll react.  If they’re really very different from you, in a station in life/profession you’ve never tried, you might have to hit the net and look at blogs by people like your character.  As you do, try to get in their heads.  This is, I think, akin to being a method actor.  You start where you are and think yourself into a character.

Say you’re a city person and are trying to think yourself into the head of a medieval woman.  You’re going to have to understand several things, because even if your character also lives in a city, cities were not what they are now, and most people still had food they grew in the backyard, most people still had far more contact with “nature” than you would, most would think completely differently.

Research goes without saying, but then there are certain basics you must establish:

1- Your character would be far more conversant with death than you are, particularly death of children and cute fuzzy things.  She probably killed her own dinner at least a few times (animals were often sold alive, because of no refrigeration.  If she’s a housewife, she’d have killed animals more than once.) If this bothers her, you not only need to give us a reason, you need to show us other people being puzzled by her.

2- Your character will be used to far more physical effort than you are.  Even if it’s just walking, she’ll walk a lot more than you do in an average day.  The concept of exercise being good for you (or anyone) would be a foreign one.

3- Your character’s idea of cleanliness will not be the same as yours.  Dirt and contamination is either something you can see, or it’s religious/superstitious, not yours.

4- Your character is unlikely to consider solitude, nature, or a retreat to either  as a good thing.  Those places are dangerous.  Safety is in the cities, or near other human habitations.

This is a surface thing.  There is a lot more and if you want to get the full scope, you’ll read biographies of the time, or even contemporary texts.  (I do.)  BUT the point here is that you need to keep these characteristics in your head the whole time.

I don’t because I pretty much put them on the character, and then let it/her/him carry that burden.  BUT if you don’t get characters for free (think about it, that has some advantages.  You’re not saddled writing whichever crazy person comes into your head at three in the morning and won’t shut up.  Yes, I’m talking about you.  You there, in the backbrain with the wings.  You’ll have to wait your turn d*mn it.  There are a dozen ahead of you.) you might want to make lists of the characteristics that are most different from you, and then a general personality profile (some people do this in the form of an interview.)  Then familiarize yourself with it and try to stay with it while writing.  But even if you’re me and you get characters for free, things of you, yourself, will drop in, and so…

And so, before you revise read that profile again, and be aware of it for the revision.  Does your character, who is an utter introvert, while you’re an extrovert, really enjoy a party with no idea of how uncomfortable it is to be around that many people?  Does your character who is a good horsewoman not even think about her horse when she arrives somewhere? Does your character suddenly and for no reason you can give in the story, quote from your favorite book?

This must be weeded in revision.  The good thing is it can be, and in writing no one can tell if you fixed it in post.

Next Week: Remember your characters are like you (yes, I do enjoy confusing you.  Why?)

Exercise: write a short scene from the pov of a SYMPATHETIC character who is as unlike you as possible.




  1. Reblogged this on The Arts Mechanical and commented:
    I’ve seen too many things where everybody in the story is “just like us” with only the setting changed. Yet how people lived and what the places they lived in were like forms important pats of the way they think. Consider slavery. We think of it as absolutely wrong. A Greek in the Bronze age? Maybe not so much even if they were a slave.

    1. I suspect a slave in ancient times would have little problem with slavery itself.

      They might only object to them being a slave.

      Mind you, I was almost thrown out of a story where the ancient Egyptian “telling the story” stopped the action to defend slavery. Worst of all, the story was said to be by the ancient Egyptian to people of his society. Those people would be unlikely to object to slavery. 😦

      1. I just saw somewhere that while only about 2% of American whites ever owned slaves, somewhere around 6% of American blacks owned slaves. Also, the number of indentured Irish rivaled the number of enslaved Africans. Changes one’s perspective, eh?

        My nonhumans have a more or less feudal society, complete with landbound serfs. The only dispute is whether indenture qualifies. They’d never think of it as “wrong”; indeed, the serfs tend to be staunchly loyal to their hereditary lords. (Then again, in the rare event that the lord mistreats the serfs, well, it’s also a labor-starved society, and they’ll quietly vanish over the border, and your neighboring lord who acquired them will just grin innocently and tough for you.)

          1. Weeeeeell, a fair number of black freedmen and freedwomen owned black slaves, and a fair number of said freedmen and freedwomen were the offspring, spouses, siblings, or sexual partners of white slaveowners.

            So there is probably a little Venn diagram going on.

              1. At the outbreak of the Civil War, IIRC, there were over 20 million whites in the states that remained in the Union, about 6 million in the Confederacy. That means that something over two-thirds of white Americans were not legally able to own slaves, and erases most of the difference between whites and free blacks.

              2. Oh, that’s easy. According to the 1860 US Census, the ratio of slaves to those not classified as slaves or freedmen is 1.4% nationally. When you look at only the Slave States, the ratio rises to – this is from memory and could be wrong – maybe around 4%. Note this figure does not take into account freedmen who owned slaves, so the percentage would have been slightly less.

                What I can’t get a good handle on is the percentage of freedmen nationally who owned slaves. For New Orleans it was – again from memory – around 28%. But nationally? Haven’t found hard figures.

                1. That’s seriously out of whack. The U.S. Census Bureau gives the slave population in 1860 as 3,953,760. (Source – .zip file) Total population, according to the same source, was 31,443,321. This would make slaves 12.6% of the population. I have not added up the figures for the slave states specifically, but as I recall from previous study, slaves there were close to a third of the population.

                  1. Which now has me going down the rabbit hole looking at data, and no, I haven’t found that 1.4%, either.

                    I’ll toss this this out, but looking at the data it doesn’t seem right: Percentage of slave owning families, perhaps?

                    Like I said, it’s a rabbit hole. Now to start looking for something called the slave schedules.

                  2. I think y’all are assuming one slave = one owner. It was more like one owner who had lots of slaves, plus some who owned only one, and most who owned none. So the real math is a very few (wealthy, slaves were expensive) owners to a bunch of slaves. Even so, the U.S. got a very small percentage of the slaves being shipped west from the Arab markets. Most went to the Caribbean and South America.

                    1. The ‘average’ slave owner owned 5-10. 12 % owned more than 20. 3/4 of the south did not own slaves.

        1. There’s slaves and there’s slaves.

          A Jannisary and a helot were both slaves, but I know which one most people would rather be.

          1. There’s also the valuable African who you don’t send to do the most dangerous jobs because his death would be a needless cost, vs the indentured Irishman (might have been more of these shipped over than there were Africans) who is worth nothing (because you can’t sell him when his indenture ends) and therefore was expendable for jobs where he’d likely get killed.

            1. The north had a glut of immigrants coming in and they were effectively free to employers. No upfront costs or upkeep and if you lose one. So I’m not a huge fan of high and mighty attitudes from northerners about civil war. Plenty of less than right to go around.

              1. Look at the history and you find a lot of Yankee opposition to slavery starting about the time the price of slaves imported on Yankee ships at Boston Wharf dropped below 50 cents a pound…..

  2. Well, you might consider solitude or wilderness a good thing from a religious point of view. But it was something that was spiritually a little risky — hard spiritual athletic training like for the Olympics, possible exposure to demons, and a lot of exposure to one’s own weaknesses and failings. It was going into the discomfort zone.

    Of course, the more that you were holy, natural creatures and places were more likely to become friendly to you, and you might start to regard wilderness as a beautiful Eden. But for most people, that was not a stage that was reached quickly.

  3. Cleanliness standards differ from person to person or household to household, of course, but the general cultural standards could differ a lot within a small area. With American Indian tribes who lived right next door to each other, one would practically scrub the dirt floor and another would be letting stuff rot in the house.

    And yes, there are places where people cleaned dirt floors with more than just a broom, or changing the matting/rushes. A lot of places in Europe where they had white clay floors, like Brittany, had this whole process to do it.

    1. “white clay floors, like Brittany” — got any info/links on that? sounds interesting so I went looking, and can’t find a durn thing.

      I had Mexican-Indian neighbors who were the epitome of this contrast. The one, you could barely tell where outdoors ended and the trailer began. The other was out there every day sweeping the dirt around her house until not a leaf, twig, or pebble marred its perfect surface.

      1. Brittany has white pipeclay deposits, so they used ’em for flooring in the traditional cottages. Apparently some places used red clay instead. There was a long description of it in an anthropology oral history book I have somewhere, authored by an old man from Brittany who talked about the old days.

        1. Spiffy! I know Peter’s mentioned staying in some, ah, traditional huts in Africa, where the floors were beautifully polished cow dung… And how they stank when it rained, or they were cleaned.

          So other cultures made their, ah, dirt floors quite pretty, too!

  4. Thought on Exercise: write a short scene from the pov of a SYMPATHETIC character who is as unlike you as possible.

    I wonder how many would create a character who was “what they wanted to be”.

    I know some of my characters would be much better at dealing with bullies than I was.

    1. The first one I thought up was a ghost, but I have no desire to die right now. She was also perky. Very, very perky. Can’t say I want to be perky, either.

      1. “Hey, cheer up! It gets better!” She settled down on a rock. propping her elbows on her knees, and her chin in her hands.

        “I’m going to die.” I muttered at her. The gag swallowed all my words, but she heard them anyway.

        “Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. But hey, death’s not so bad! If you don’t get into heaven, you can always hang out here.” She grinned, and threw her hands up. “No cover charge on the clubs anymore!”

        I closed my eyes, and slumped into the debris with a groan. “How’d I get stuck with the ghostly answer to perkygoth?”

        “Oh! You noticed my outfit! Yay!” I couldn’t help looking. She was jumping for glee, shedding little ethreal sparkles. “Well, just for that, I’ll tell you. If you back up three inches, there’s a rusty old razor blade hidden in the gravel. A junkie dropped it a while back, when he didn’t need it anymore.”

        “Blade up? So I can cut the shit out of myself and die without fingertips?”

        “Honestly, you’re so emo! But no, it’s kinda angled like this.” She made a slicing motion. I nodded tightly, and scooted back, despite the lancing pain from every broken rib and the kick to my head. “See? There’s always a way up and out!”

        “What do I owe you?” I hadn’t dealt with ghost before, but fae and were always traded favours.

        She laughed, and rocked back on her heels. “Owe me? Aw, what an invitation. Um… you have to laugh. And go dancing! How’s that? Seriously, learn to live a little, mister Grumpy Mcscowlyface!” Giggling, she fell through the wall.

  5. Too busy to write a POV scene right now, but a while ago I’d come up a quick way to write a sympathetic scene with a character who’s not only unlike me but who holds view diametrically oppose to mine: you focus not on what the character hates, but what the character loves.

    Everyone’s got to love something, whether something or someone outside themselves, or personal things like money, honors and glories that’ll give their own mean little lives value.

    Even H.P. Lovecraft, when expressing the absolute worst of his views on race in his fiction, was always in the context of the civilization that he saw as endangered. Just look at his descriptions of the early days of The Street, or the passages describing Innsmouth ‘before the shadow fell.’

    1. And remember that he fell in love and married a Jewish big city woman with views totally unlike his own. He grew throughout his life and was a lot less narrow than people pretend, these days, and the bigotry against him is amazingly blind to its own bigotry.

      1. Lovecraft could write sympathetically from the perspective of the Other as well.

        They might have been starfish-headed, partly vegetable tentacular monstrosities with a weird sense of humor, but THEY WERE MEN!!!

        1. “we give our protagonists a resolution that’s both fitting and not obvious from page five, we’re doing pretty damn well”

          The perfect solution: For a long time I had myself no idea what to do with the protagonist’s scheming antagonist/ally in the end, and this insecurity shines through in her actions. Then, all of a sudden, my wife suggested an outcome that matched the personality of this character perfectly, I saw that at once, but it would not have occurred to me in a hundred years (only a woman can think as crooked as that!). And that’s how we ended the book.

  6. “because who wants to play with herself forever.”

    I always thought that was the main reason for marriage…

    Sarah, you put up a slow pitch basketball like that one…….

        1. To paraphrase Marc Antony, this is a crew on whose brow shame would be ashamed to sit…. not to mention worried about catching something.

  7. I, too, owe my character creation to having loads of imaginary friends. I think I’ve always been fascinated with people/humans/humanity’s weirdness in general, so characters kind of happen for me. They’re the one thing about my writing that I trust.

    1. Yes. I was given characters (and words) for free. I found words often get in the way of good story. And characters need to be subsumed to plot. (Other people don’t find my friends as fascinating as I do. Who knew?)

    2. The closest I remember there was taking a TV Guide and imagining, from the descriptions, shows we couldn’t watch because we couldn’t pick up those channels.

  8. Heck if I know. Rada grew, Elizabeth changed at least twice, Joschka wasn’t supposed to show up, Matthew Malatesta’s historical model appeared in the back seat of my pick-up, and Rahoul just sighs and wonders what he’s going to have to explain to Horseguards this week. (And he needs to get that high bloodpressure checked.)

  9. Point #5: Extremely different dietary customs
    (goes with cleanliness & food):
    Beer or wine with every meal? Of course. Beer or wine served to children — not teens, but *children*? What else would they drink? Drinking water makes people sick; no one will drink that stuff. pfui!

    1. In one of Peter Ozment’s books, he quotes a journal of a patrician father in Nuremberg in the late 1500s who was quite concerned because his four-year-old son still preferred milk to wine. Wine was much better for the boy (per father), and the father had grave concerns. Now, he and his wife had lost 9 children either as miscarriages, still-births, or before 3 months of age, so paranoia was probably warranted.

      1. “Few commoners…in Feudal England ever tasted claret [i.e., red Bordeaux wine]. Their staple was ale, which, to them, was rather food than drink. Men, women, and children had ale for breakfast, with their favorite afternoon meal, and before they went to bed at night.’13 ‘…a gallon per head per day was the standard ration [of ale].”

        (I begin to wonder how much universal alcoholism contributed to the low life expectancy of the time, and how much of medieval history is to be explained by everyone in charge being permanently boozed.)

  10. Thanks for the very thoughtful article. The thought of writing a novel in a month seemed a bit daunting, though mine tend to be a little longer than the 50,000 word rule.

  11. Child mortality. Moderns in western society think it’s rare and awful. For most of the human race it isn’t. Yes, people will mourn children, but I don’t think they ought to be surprised. I really hated that bit in the 2nd LOTR movie when the King of Rohan (who wasn’t Theoden, no way, no how) said a father shouldn’t survive his son, or whatever the exact words were. In a warrior society? In a culture at that level? I thought it was a purely false note. Others think it the most moving bit in the whole thing.

    1. That Steward guy wasn’t Denothor either.

      Not that I necessarily blame Peter Jackson: he had to make Aragorn and Gandalf look like competent commanders who saved the day, the quickest way to do that in a movie-length format was to make the current commanders somewhat…lacking.

      It also felt forced in Théoden’s case. Given the circumstances, withdrawing to Helm’s Deep while Eomer rallied some forces was the smart move. Trying to face Saruman’s army earlier would’ve been suicide.

      And don’t get me started about Frodo and Sam in Osgiliath…

      But back to the point, I guess it just wasn’t something that would occur to the moviemakers, or that modern audiences would accept.

      1. Then again, Theoden had lost his sole heir, who was unmarried & without issue. That his line had ended would be more distressing than the loss of a small child.

          1. Yeah, but they wasted that little time conveying a point that was false to the story and should have been left out. In fact, that’s true of every plot element that Jackson added to the last two films. The guy who apprehended Frodo and Sam in Ithilien was not Faramir. The guy who turned his back and went home because Frodo said so in a moment of madness was not Sam. And the whole bit where Jackson tries to psych out the audience by faking Aragorn’s death, well, that wasn’t anybody or anything; it was pure weapon-grade stupidium. Cut all that out, and they’d have had plenty of time to make any points they needed.

            1. I’ve been living in a pleasant delusion and don’t want to admit that Jackson did to LOTR what Abram’s did to Stars Trek and Wars.

    2. From mom, who grew up in a slum, where child mortality was at medieval levels, I gather they mourned children like we mourn cats.
      For mom the dividing line, when she heard of a child death and ACTUALLY empathized was “He was almost raised” — so anything from about twelve on. Before that it was “Well, it’s another angel” and a little sad, but shrug.

      1. Oct 26 was my daughter’s birthday, so this stings a bit. I had a few thoughts, and decided will leave till tomorrow. Some notions I contest, to a degree. Just didn’t want to come across as ranty.

          1. I am useless at writing so I will list:

            1) “Oct 26 was my daughter’s birthday, so this stings a bit.” You reminded me is all, but thanks for the condolences. You’re a good sort. I’d had a busy day.

            2) “For mom the dividing line, when she heard of a child death and ACTUALLY empathized was “He was almost raised” — so anything from about twelve on. Before that it was “Well, it’s another angel” and a little sad, but shrug.”

            I have experienced this attitude, mostly from catholic women: aw bless, but she was a babe, and without sin. etc.

            and that’s far as I got. After two hours. I can do it in my head, I can talk it, but I can’t walk it.

            One thought I had was a tv doc about the foundling hospital:


            I did that cause I know you like Austen.


            “A silver clasp, a thimble, a doll’s arm, a string of wooden beads, a ribbon, a hazelnut shell”

            These aren’t women who don’t give crap about their off-spring. (Which is the point which irked me. I am on Skype, much more coherent there. I just don’t write well. Sorry.)

            1. Oh, no, not their own offspring. My mom fought like hell to save me, once I was born. I wouldn’t be here without her. I meant hearing of the deaths of other people’s children. If a friend loses a child (fortunately very rare) it can depressed for six months or a year. But mom would just go “Oh, it’s just an angel.” (In Portugal the parents and the mourners dressed all in white for the funeral. Because they were sending an angel up to heaven.
              I’m very sorry for your loss. The closest I experienced was a late-term miscarriage, and a lot of early term ones. The funny thing is that I realized I forgot the YEAR my daughter would have been born, because it seems like yesterday, but she would now be in her teens. I can’t miss what I never had, can I?

      2. I read once that some medieval parents didn’t name their children until each had survived a smallpox epidemic wave. The chance of death from the first smallpox wave was so high they didn’t want the emotional investment. I don’t know if that is true.

  12. First of all, medieval people were not dirty – that was the Baroque Age. The medieval bathing houses are notorious, in fact.

    But as for, “Say you’re a city person and are trying to think yourself into the head of a medieval woman”, I challenge you to try that. For a male author, it is close to impossible even to think himself into the head of a modern woman who shall not become a wet teenage dream, if vice versa. Or, if you are a devout Christian, try think yourself into a fervent atheist or into a Jew without beginning to stereotype.

    Matter of fact, no author will be able to think him- or herself into the head of a person from the past. Or if he or she will, then neither author nor reader could relate to this person. Mentalities are too different. I heard an interview once by an author who was browsing a vast archive in research for a novel. First, he thought, “OMG, how much these people were like us!” But slowly, he became aware that time and again he would skip vast bunches of the archived papers. Examining his reasons for doing so, he concluded that they seemed utterly irrelevant to him – but evidently they had been highly relevant for the people back then, or they would not have recorded them in such detail! Hence, he settled with, “OMG, these people were not very much like us!”, and if he tried to convey these things, he would lose all his readers.

    (It has happened to me – sections in my novels critisised as unbearable and as contrived as a bad stageplay were just those in which a priest quoted original religious texts from the 5th century.)

    1. Er… cleanliness depended on times and places. And even then it would be “a bath a week” not a bath every day. Or perhaps “a bath a month.” Yes, I know all the new “rediscovery” but it’s not true. Hell, it’s still not true in most of the world.
      b) THEIR IDEAS OF CLEANLINESS WERE DIFFERENT. They’d wash if they SAW dirt, but it wouldn’t occur to any of them to wash their hands after touching something iffy if no dirt was visible. Which is what I said.

      1. Thorough cleaning just once a week was common even when I was a child. We had sauna on Saturday, rest of the week you’d wash face, hands and armpits in the evening, sometimes feet if they got smelly from sweating in winter or dirty from dust from having been out barefoot or in sandals during the summer, but that was it. Back then the idea of getting a shower every day was pretty weird. And that sauna on Saturday custom seems to be a pretty old one. But it may not even have been done so much for getting clean but because feels very pleasant. One of the few luxuries back in the days when luxury of any kind was mostly lacking in the lives of common people.

        1. Same here, even with a family of anal-rententive Norwegians who would not allow a speck of dust to settle in their pristine houses, and whose yards looked like landscaping ads. And then everyone would use the same bathwater.

      2. The logistics of a daily full bath are a bit harder if you have to carry all your water in from somewhere else, and you need to use wood or coal to heat the water.
        A public bathhouse is great if you live close to one, but your more rural people probably don’t have the time to walk a few hours every day to get there.

        1. Yup. It was more pleasant in the summer, when the tub was in the back yard. Winter, on the screened porch, less so.

            1. There was a good reason for parental outrage at children playing in the mud. It wasn’t as if they could just dump you in a tub and turn a tap…

              1. My kids got that “dump in the tub” so often, I can’t imagine how my mother did without that to hand. But yeah, we were more restrained for that reason, but also allowed to go dirtier. It simply wasn’t possible to have modern-day hygiene.

        1. “For most people, having a private bath was not an option – it was simply too costly and too time-consuming to have their own baths. That does not mean they went without bathing, for public baths were very common throughout Europe. By the thirteenth-century one could find over 32 bathhouses in Paris; Alexander Neckham, who lived in that city a century earlier, says that he would be awakened in the mornings by people crying in the streets that ‘that baths are hot!”

          In Southwark, the town on the opposite side of the Thames River from London, a person could choose from 18 hot baths. Even smaller towns would have bathhouses, often connected with the local bakery – the baths could make use of the heat coming from their ovens to help heat their water.”

            1. Well, for one thing, the word soap derives from Latin _sapo_ – but the Romans loaned it from Germanic _saipon_, together with the commodity. Martial makes several allusions to Germanic soap, as does Galen. Not to mention that those guys were excellent swimmers. The Batavians boasted their ability to cross deep rivers in full armour without losing formation, and this is attested by several witnesses at different occasions (though not all of them always reached the other bank, as the same records show), You don’t stay dirty while you are training that, you know. And Beowulf is a swimmer, too:

              BTW, the most frequent items found in Viking graves are tools for bodily hygiene. Even Arab writers appreciated the Varangians’ habit of washing themselves every morning.

              As for Portugal – well, it used to be Muslim territory once. And Muslims LOVE bathing above everything! Can’t help it that only Christians are so filthy.

              1. <Rolls eyes.
                Okay, fine. You keep the little horse. This is not what I've learned or what is recorded in the areas I've studied, but go for it. Have fun.
                (Arab "bathing" can be done with sand. And it's ritual not cleanly. Also, those edits against bathing for Christians? NEVER existed. Not once. Also, the history of diseases? Germanic invasions made them REALLY bad. Also, the poems. But hey, be happy, okay?)

                1. Remind me then not to read your novels for they profoundly lack good research. To get a more realistic idea, I suggest other readers to start with 14th century author Magninius Mediolanesis who, in his treatise “Regimen sanitatis”, offers over 57 bathing prescriptions to use in specific conditions like old age, pregnancy and travelling, and his rules for bathing run 1500 words long. Or refer to Pietro de Tussignano’s 12 rules for bathing at Burmi, dating from 1332. John Russell’s “Book of Nurture”, late 15th century.

                  “By the fifteenth-century, bath feasting in many town bathhouses seems to have been as common as going out to a restaurant was to become four centuries later. German bath etchings from the fifteenth century often feature the town bathhouse, with a long row of bathing couples eating a meal naked in bathtubs, often several to a tub, with other couples seen smiling in beds in the mid-distance.”
                  (Virginia Smith: “Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity”)

                  As for edits against bathing for Christians, check with St Augustine, to begin with, and continue with medieval thunder from the church-tower against those very bathhouses mentioned above. With little effect, as numerous contemporary illustrations like this one ascertain:

                  As for Arab bathing in sand, this is waaaaay too ignorant a comment to answer. Shall it suffice to refer to those thousands of medieval Moorish hammams, or bathhouses, that are spread all over the Iberian peninsula, in many places paired with seperate bathhouses for Jews and for Christians. But hey, be happy, okay?

              2. Everyone were swimmers? Swimming does not clean anyone. As for soap, it might have existed, it wasn’t in wide use until the eighteenth century.
                Oh, also “Was you there, Charlie?”

        2. Sigh. This all smells (sorry) of the usual revisionism. JUST judging by my life time, not only no, but hell no. In the mountains of Portugal (mostly pure Germanic, depending on the village) the idea that taking baths is bad for your health is STILL huge. There are proverbs about it. None of it has to do with Christianity.
          Let’s talk about the thing encoded in really early poetry where you took a bath before your wedding and it was obvious it was your first FULL IMMERSION bath. Seriously. As with a lot of this “your history was wrong” I think this is mostly “I need a thesis”. It doesn’t accord with primary sources from MOST places. It’s like the theory humans have always lived that long. Asininity and poppycock.

          1. Not a thesis. But I know the history of my home-town. You know, I am living at a place that has maintained an unbroken tradition of public bathing for the last 2000 years. 26 hot thermal wells in the township speak for themselves.

              1. My part of Germany was clean then … As was much of Europe. You wouldn’t want to carry all the filth from the town streets around for too long, would you?

    2. First of all, medieval people were not dirty – that was the Baroque Age. The medieval bathing houses are notorious, in fact.

      Did you read the original posting properly? Sarah said that the average medieval person (from any culture) had a different idea of what “clean” means than the average modern Westerner. That doesn’t mean “they were dirty”. It means that what they called clean wouldn’t necessarily match what we call clean. And vice versa.

      But as for, “Say you’re a city person and are trying to think yourself into the head of a medieval woman”, I challenge you to try that. For a male author, it is close to impossible even to think himself into the head of a modern woman who shall not become a wet teenage dream, if vice versa. Or, if you are a devout Christian, try think yourself into a fervent atheist or into a Jew without beginning to stereotype.

      Done it. It’s scary. I spent several months in the head of a 15th century warlord, and had to keep reminding myself that no, I couldn’t just kill those !@#$#! giving me grief. And yeah, you’re right that it’s damn hard to get right and even harder to do it in a way that doesn’t turn off modern readers. I know I hit a number of sour notes with that.

      Matter of fact, no author will be able to think him- or herself into the head of a person from the past. Or if he or she will, then neither author nor reader could relate to this person. Mentalities are too different.

      Wrong. What happened with me was I wound up wearing the other person’s mindset. Which caused issues when you’re dealing with someone whose main form of conflict resolution involved killing, preferably in a sufficiently horrifying way that nobody dared argue, and a modern software tester. It can be done. Whether you want to do it is another question entirely.

      (It has happened to me – sections in my novels critisised as unbearable and as contrived as a bad stageplay were just those in which a priest quoted original religious texts from the 5th century.)

      Or maybe you just didn’t have the skills to hang enough lampshades around for your modern readers. Or didn’t realize you needed to. It’s not easy. But just because you failed at it doesn’t mean nobody else can do it, and it doesn’t mean you get to pontificate at folks who are trying to figure out the balance for themselves.

      1. “Which caused issues when you’re dealing with someone whose main form of conflict resolution involved killing, preferably in a sufficiently horrifying way that nobody dared argue, and a modern software tester.”

        I see no conflict there —- says the software tester. 😎

      2. Well, none less than Umberto Eco has made the same observation: Getting critisised for unrealism in those very passages in “The Name of the Rose” that he had precisely paraphrased from medieval scriptures. That’s when good research meets the prejudices of critics, as in the example with the bathing houses above.

        1. I feel reasonably confident in saying that you are not Umberto Eco. And based on your offerings here, you’re not even close. Kate’s point stands. You seem to be projecting your own skewed view of the past on everyone else.

            1. Revisionist or Traditionalist? Since you don’t seem versed in Historical factions the Revisionists are ‘us bad, them good’ and the Traditionalists are ‘them bad, us good’. I’ll go to as many of the original documents rather than the text books with an agenda.

              You see, my parents also grew up in a ‘medieval’ country. Korea before the Korean war. And you’re full of it. Even they had a different view of cleanliness than we do modernly. And it was different from the view of cleanliness from the Americans and Europeans they dealt with. And this is from primary sources not interpretation of primary sources. But you don’t care about primary sources or you wouldn’t be ignoring our hostess’ accounts and dismissing them as irrelevant.

              As for Muslim cleanliness, don’t make me laugh. You’ve swallowed the propaganda and the myth of how beautiful Al Andelusia was.

              1. Korea is not medieval Europe and cannot provide any primary source. I go with Magninius Mediolanesis, Pietro de Tussignano etc. who ARE primary sources since they lived in those times. Not to mention the well documented history of my home-town in the Middle Ages. The bathhouses have actually been excavated, you see.

                As for Muslim cleanliness, I strongly suggest you start doing some actual research. I have been in Portugal and visited those places, you see …

                  1. “By the medieval period, public baths had become an important part of community life, and the quality and number of baths counted among any city’s most admired attributes. Medieval authors mention hammams alongside mosques, madrasas (schools), and gardens in their descriptions of beautiful and prosperous cities. Hilāl al-Sābi’ (969–1056), for example, estimated that Baghdad at its height had 60,000 bathhouses. While al- Sābi’ may have exaggerated, the hyperbole does effectively relay the grandeur of the Abbasid

                    1. I’ve seen some of those bath houses. You know why they bragged about the number of bathhouses they had? Because water was worth more than gold. Exaggerated? By several orders of magnitude. The only people who bathed in water were the rich. They weren’t that impressive by modern standards, even /before/ they acquired bullet holes. You get out of Bagdad they still bathe the way they bathed back then: With sand. Because water is rare and precious.

                  2. Mostly insanity adherent. Look at how many answers he’s made on a minor point. A minor point, btw, which was NOT what I said in the post. He’s insane and obsessed. GAZE past his posts. If he posts again today, he’s getting banned.

                    1. You are incapable of understanding English, so the chances of your writing plausible novels is passingly small.
                      ONE MORE COMMENT and you’re bit bucketed. I don’t know what kind of fit you’re having to post these many times, with an obsession bordering frenzy, but I advise you call the nurse and get back on your meds.

                1. Bernard Rudofsky, in a speech reprinted in Interior Design, gives a more cheerful picture:

                  “In the Middle Ages, an epoch generally dismissed as dark and dirty, men and women bathed together and took their time about it. They often remained in the water for a meal, served on floating tables, and in time the bath became the favorite place for banquets, accompanied by song and music, with the musicians seated in the water. Men kept their hats on, women were impeccably groomed for the occasion–from the navel upwards, wearing chokers and necklaces, turbans and towering headdresses. A veil marked the status of a married woman. A part from the usual quota of zealots, the Church remained on the whole tolerant of these hedonistic pastimes. Some monastic orders made bathing in hot air and steam part of their regimen, while others forbade bathing except at Christmas and Easter. Moreover, instead of tearing down the thermae of old, the clergy converted them into chapels and churches. Many a marble tub was thus promoted to a baptismal font, bathing chairs were turned into pulpits, and the flow of pagan, springs was metamorphosed into holy water.

                  Bathing scenes woven into Gothic tapestries leave no doubt that bathing was indulged with equal gusto by prince and pauper. In the morning, the opening of the public baths was announced by the sound of trumpets and drums, whereupon the good burghers proceeded to them naked–a precaution against theft. For the stay-at-home a wooden tub was brought to the bed-chamber and filled with hot water. If the chronicles are to be believed, the wealthy had elaborate installations with pipes made of gold and silver, and one Heinrich von Veldecke, an epic poet, sang the praises of a golden tub. In the spring, bathing parties would move to outdoor pools and ornate basins, amid statuary and flowering trees. Dark ages indeed! ”

                  Georges Duby, in an article in A History of Private Life, suggests:

                  “…Among the dominant classs at least, cleanliness was much prized. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Cluniac monasteries and houses of the lay nobility continued to set aside space for baths…No formal dinner (that is, no dinner given in the great hall with a large crowd of guests) could begin until ewers had been passed around to the guest for their preprandial abulutions. Water flowed abundantly in the literature of amusement — over the body of the knight-errant, who was always rubbed down, combed, and groomed by his host’s daughters whenever he stopped for the night, and over the nude bodies of fairies in fountains and steam-baths. A hot bath was an obligatory prelude to the amorous games described in the fabliaux. Washing one’s own body and the bodies of others seems to have been a function specifically ascribed to women, mistresses of water both at home and in the wilderness.

                  Bathing and grooming were regarded with suspicion by moralists, however, because they unveiled the attractsions of the body. Bathing was said to be a prelude to sin, and in the penitential of Burchard of Worms we find a full catalog of the sins that ensued when men and women bathed together… Lambert of Ardres, the historian of the counts of Guines, describes the young wife of the ancestor of his hero swimming before the eyes of her household in a pond below the castle, but he is careful to indicate that she is wearing a modest white gown. … [Public baths] were suspect because they were too public; it was better wash one’s body in the privacy of one’s own home. Scrupulous, highly restrictive precautions were taken in . . . monasteries. At Cluny the custom required the monks to take a full bath twice a year, at the holidays of renewal, Christmas and Easter; but they were exhorted not to uncover their pudenda.” (p. 525)

                  While mixed bathing was discouraged by the Church, records exist that baths were used as social affairs, with banquets and wedding feasts being joined with the baths. Certainly, the depictions of couples using the baths suggests that it was a social as well as sexual activity. Durer’s 1497 woodcut of men at a public bathhouse, contrasted with his drawing of ‘Women’s Bath’ of the same year, shows sex-segregated bathing.

                  Another question is frequency of bathing. Shahan says,

                  “In the first volume of Janssen’s History of the German People there are many details concerning the popular use of baths in Germany during the Middle Ages. Men bathed several times each day; some spent the whole day in or about their favorite springs. From the 20th of May to the 9th of June, 1511, Lucas Rem bathed one hundred and twenty-seven times, as we may see by his diary” (p. 291-292).

  13. Kiddo, you have far more patience than I would over this constant harping and ranting by Codex over minutia.
    Last I looked this was a blog on writing under your purview, not theirs.
    Reluctant as I am to call for nukes, the ban hammer seems appropriate here.

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