“How is your character influenced by their setting?”
by Alan Bray
When I wrote The Hour of Parade, I wanted a story with interesting characters who were also living two hundred years ago—an historical setting. I had to decide whether these characters were or were not different from people alive now, and if they were different, in what way, and how much of it should be shown.
Since I’m not a historian and have no time machine—except arguably by flying across time zones—I had to rely on historical records and fiction from the time for answers. There are many wonderful memoirs from the period, in English and translated, and a huge amount of fiction. I read things slightly before the time, like Julie, and I also read books written several decades later, on the theory that fiction writers tend to write about things several decades in the past and not the present. It’s hard to see the absolute present clearly.
And memoir. Of course, you have to figure that people writing about their lives tend to show things in a good light.
I decided that people are largely the same creatures, but there were particular things that were different and should influence my characters.
In early nineteenth century Europe and America, people were presented with ideas that came to be called Romanticism, ideas that were expressed in literature, music, theater, and politics, and that seemed exciting and new. They emphasized individual experience and valued emotion over eighteenth century rationalism and materialism. Impulsive, heart-felt action was admired. So were intense walks in nature, storms and encounters with ghosts.
Napoleon was an archetype of Romanticism, a hero who seized control of his own destiny by defying conventions about class. He was an inspiration to many who hoped to escape the rigid class boundaries of the eighteenth century. The writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had died by 1800, remained wildly popular, especially the novel Julie that is at the heart of Hour. Julie idealizes passion, love, and friendship.
So, in writing Hour, I wanted to have the characters and story express Romanticism against the background of the Enlightenment.
Like I said, it’s hard to see clearly the ideas that influence our time. Maybe one is that technology can solve any problem. Maybe we tend to value rationality over emotional expression. If you had a character in a story set in 1800 who thought emotion was bad and that technology could solve any problems—a sort of very chill Mr. Spock—it wouldn’t be wrong, just unusual, and that unusual quality would have to be accounted for somehow, I think.
In Hour, I tried to show the characters expressing Romantic ideas—more or less. Marianne, for example, is very practical. I don’t see her valuing emotion and love much at all. But she’s not expressing Enlightenment ideas either, she’s just pre-occupied with survival. Valsin, with his internal wrestling over love vs. career, is very Romantically self-focused, as he is in his valuing friendship with Alexi.
Anne-Marie is also a practical person because she has to be, but she expresses Romantic ideas about the importance of passion and emotion in making decisions. Instead of accepting what fate brings her, she seizes control of her destiny—not always, of course, with the best of results.
Alexi is meant to be Mr. Romantic. He defies convention and his father to focus on himself. Another way to say it is that he’s a character who came out of the Enlightenment and embraced Romanticism with both hands. He’s ready to change his career, the military, because it no longer allows him the room to express who he is. (that’s a pretty modern idea). He likes to go for long walks that allow plenty of time to brood. He values his thoughts and feelings, and he values love and passion. He blurs boundaries in several ways because emotion is more important, that is, he befriends Valsin, his enemy, and he loves Marianne and Anne-Marie, who are both from different classes and countries.
Of course, there were other more concrete differences between now and then. A less developed technology meant that, with poor lighting and a lack of media, there wasn’t much to do. Many men and women at that time worked like dogs and collapsed at night from exhaustion, but the characters in The Hour of Parade were more privileged and didn’t have a lot to do moment to moment. Alexi can’t stay in his rooms all day—although he expects his mistress to—he has to get out and walk. After the event of military parade, Valsin and the other soldiers are free to do whatever they can afford. The significance of the title—The Hour of Parade—is that important things occurred during this time when others were occupied. Boredom and how it’s handled is always a significant issue for humans.
I was born in 1954 in Detroit, Michigan, the only child of a sales representative for a railroad and a schoolteacher. I grew up reading books, which at that time, meant adult books, as the availability of children’s books was limited. I read a lot of things I didn’t understand, but it helped me to grow and gave me a love for literature, for the power of imaginary worlds so much like real life but with something extra.
I didn’t start writing fiction till I was in my forties. I had just moved to rural New Hampshire, my father had recently died; in short, I was ready for something new. I’m fortunate to be able to devote a lot of time to writing and to reading which I think is equally important.
I like to write about people going through a transition because of something that happens to them, something that resonates with memory and their past.
I’ve worked as a professional musician, record store clerk, psychotherapist and factory worker. I have a son and a daughter, and a wonderful wife.
To me, writing is a positive and intense pre-occupation.