I really love time travel stories in which characters from the past come to modern day. The major technological breakthroughs of the past couple of centuries have landed us in a world most of our ancestors would have thought was impossible, and I love to imagine how normal people from other time periods would react could they see it.
Unfortunately, characters who travel to modern day face a set of problems that many writers ignore. I’m not talking about the initial confusion of trying to figure out what’s pulling the car or who the lady on the phone is talking to. I’m talking about paperwork.
For example, lets say a character from 1800 or so suddenly winds up in modern LA. Agg! Help! Technology! Too much to learn! Fortunately though, this character is smart and determined, and within a surprisingly short amount of time learns to drive a car and gains the computer skills to land himself a high tech job. Does that mean he’s all set to become a citizen of the present? Unfortunately, no. You see, in order to get a real job, or even a drivers licence, he’ll need documents containing a date of birth. Therefore, he will have to do one of two things, a) Come out as a time traveler, or b) Lie.
Many authors do not like to write about characters who lie, nor do they like to write about characters who become famous for having time traveled. So, writers who send characters to another era usually make them give really vague answers to anybody who asks questions. For characters who travel to the past, this method is understandable, but for characters who find themselves in present day, vague answers simply aren’t good enough. Well, maybe they’re okay for a weekend visit at your future relative’s house, but if you stay too long and can’t find a legal job, you’re going to start annoying people.
There are only four possible endings to a story about character from the past who immigrates to the present day. Writers may try to find a way between these endings, but there isn’t one:
1. Character claims to have time traveled, but is not believed. Character spends remainder of life in mental institution.
2. Character claims to have time traveled, and due to compelling evidence, is believed. Character spends remainder of life as a celebrity and gets his own reality show on TLC called I am a time traveler from the past. For the remainder of his life, everyone feels sorry for him and expects him to be clueless about everything.
3. Character does not claim to be from anywhere. Character lives by mooching off of future girlfriend (common occurrence in time travel sex fantasy – oops! I meant romance – novels). Or, character ends up as a homeless guy on the streets.
4. Character realizes the only way to make it as a modern day citizen is to provide documentation. He not only lies about his past, but forges paperwork to back up those lies. If not caught, he is finally accepted into society and lives what we would consider to be a normal life, although he himself might have a different opinion.
The necessity of lying about one’s past in order to have a normal life in the present could and should be a great source of angst in many novels. Unfortunately, it isn’t, because writers aren’t willing to face the the truth: Sometimes, in order to appear normal, a time traveler just has to lie.