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English: A fish out of water One of a series o...

English: A fish out of water One of a series of sculptures along the old railway track (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Part of the reason I love time travel so much is that it almost inevitably leads to a fish out of water story.  Characters in the past may find that themselves hopelessly lost without modern technology and unsure of current social customs, or at the very least struggle to cope with the burden of knowing future events that others don’t.   On the other hand, characters who travel to the future struggle to grasp the more advanced technology and evolved social customs of a new time, as well as catching up on historical information that is common knowledge to others.  Unfortunately though, as with any fish out of water story, writers can sometimes get carried away with the time traveler’s plight, and in an effort to show how out of place the character is they ultimately just make the character look stupid.

It’s perfectly reasonable to expect a character who travels to the past not to be at home there.  However, once characters figure out what year they’re in, they shouldn’t be shocked by basic historical facts that everybody knows.  A woman with a basic knowledge of history should not expect to be considered equal to a man at any time prior to the past 100 years.  A traveler to the wild west shouldn’t be surprised to hear about men dueling rather than suing each other.  Also, however awkward a character might be initially in a different time period, this shouldn’t last too long.  A normal person would learn the social norms quickly by copying them, and avoid attracting attention (unless absolutely necessary) until they knew how to do it in a way that was socially acceptable.

The above is true for any character of sound mind who travels to the past.  However characters who arrive in a previous time they already know something about should not magically forget what they know about their favorite era upon being transported there.  A character such as Amanda Price from Lost in Austen, who declares herself obsessed with Pride and Prejudice but then refuses to give up her make up and modern hairstyle upon arrival in regency based world of Elizabeth Bennett, won’t get much sympathy from me.

Just as characters traveling back in time can look stupid if they ignore current social norms for too long, a character traveling from the past to the future can be equally annoying.  I once heard of a story in which a character from the past kept her fear of cars for months after arriving in modern day.  As strange as modern technology would seem to a character from the past, or as dramatic as his/her initial reaction to it might be, it shouldn’t take long for a person of normal mental capacity to realize modern technology is:

  1. Not overly dangerous (Otherwise people wouldn’t be using it).
  2. Used according to specific, predictable rules (A society made chaotic by technological breakthrough soon stabilizes itself).
  3. Pretty easy to learn how to control (Otherwise it wouldn’t be common).

Basically (barring the fact that characters from some time periods might be more willing than us to consider the possibility that magic is involved at first) , if I can’t envision a person from our time reacting similarly to Star Trek type technology, I know a character from the past is not behaving realistically.

My favorite good example of a time traveler from the past who reacts realistically to modern day is Jane, from Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict.  Future technology might shock her at first, but she catches on to it pretty quick, aided somewhat by memories that come with her new body.  What other good (or bad) examples of characters reacting to life in another time can you think of?  Let me know, I’m curious.

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