Last night, I watched another episode of Secrets of the Dead. #quarantinesociallife #orlackthereof #historynerd

This episode was about the events leading up to the Salem Witch Trials. To make a long story short, in 1691 and 1692, many people in Salem began suffering from terrifying hallucinations and convulsions. Because no one had any other explanation, the residents of Salem thought the patients had been bewitched. Over the next eighteen months, dozens of innocent people were accused of being witches, and some were executed.

The episode makes a convincing case for a scientific explanation of how this tragedy began. At the beginning of the story, a behavioral psychologist studying the Salem Witch Trials notices that LSD (a.k.a. acid) use and the illness in Salem have remarkably similar symptoms. Of course, LSD didn't exist in the 1690s, so it couldn't be the culprit. But as the psychologist digs deeper, she discovers that LSD is derived from a fungus called ergot. It attacks multiple types of plants, including one of Salem's main food crops: rye. Furthermore, during the time leading up to the illness, Salem had the necessary weather conditions for ergot to infect the rye crop.

In short, the victims of the illness weren't bewitched. They likely had contracted ergot poisoning from unknowingly eating contaminated food. 

So what does this have to do with writing? A few important things, actually:

  • When the characters—fictional or real—in our work have to make decisions, they typically have incomplete information on which to base those choices.

  • In Salem, the residents didn't know about ergot or what it can do to a person if ingested.

  • In The Scarlet Pimpernel, when Marguerite gives in to Chauvelin's blackmail and agrees to help him find the Pimpernel, she has no idea that the Pimpernel is <spoiler> her husband. </spoiler>

  • As writers, we usually have all or most of the relevant information, either because we're the ones making up that information (fiction) or because we have the benefit of hindsight and/or a modern perspective (nonfiction).

  • This disparity of information makes it easy to slip into a judgmental attitude toward our characters for their ignorance, misguided views, and/or poor choices.

  • "How could the people in Salem have possibly believed in witches? If they'd just looked at it scientifically . . ."

  • "How could Marguerite be so close to the Pimpernel and not know who he is? Is she totally blind?" 

  • That attitude, in turn, tends to poke through in our writing, making us sound self-righteous or condescending.

  • Such intrusive attitudes can really annoy readers, who like to make their own judgments about characters.

To paraphrase my wise student-teaching advisor:

"You keep saying, '[Character] should've known.' But how could [they] have known? [They've] never done this before."

So cut your characters some slack, even if they're doing something dumb. And cut yourself some slack, too. Writing is hard, and beating ourselves up won't make us better authors. 

If you need someone to cheer you on, help you with the troublesome parts of your work, or both, click here to book a time for us to chat about how I can help you.

Write on,