Tips To Write Better Royalty, Nobility, & Other Upper-Class & Important Characters
You may have seen this one before: a young woman gets roped into attending an upper-class party of some kind. She hates the dress. She can’t stand the chit-chat that goes on between the guests. And she looks upon her father, Lord Westmoore, with disdain and contempt for attempting to flatter and get on the good side of a more influential and more powerful lord.
Our heroine hates the whole noble scene. She’d rather be off on a DARING ADVENTURE with a sword and a horse and all that. Just as she’s about to lose all faith in humanity, the prince sidles up to her and confesses that he finds these events boring, too. And that’s how we know he’s a good guy - he’s not like all those other shallow and insipid nobles who have nothing better to do than sample hors d'oeuvres and play boring lawn games.
What’s more, we’re supposed to agree with her and all of her opinions and choices up to this point.
Problem is, scenarios like these are typically built up on a lot of stereotypes and misunderstandings of just what being nobility or upper class entails.
Table of Contents
- There’s often a lot of responsibility that goes with the status and title.
- The high life is their comfort zone.
- People in upper class positions have ways to justify inequality.
- Let’s talk about clothes and thrones for a minute.
- They’re people, and people have differing personalities, opinions, interests, and views.
There’s often a lot of responsibility that goes with the status and title.
One problem that plagues a lot of fiction where characters of status and title are concerned is that their actual responsibilities get overlooked. The way they’re presented, they come off as jockeying for power and status simply because it’s what these types of people do, as if it’s some sort of voluntary ego-stroking exercise. While this can certainly happen, to make it appear as though that’s all it’s about is to paint a highly inaccurate picture.
Maybe Lord Westmoore isn’t just being some kind of sad little suckup just to climb the social ladder. Maybe he needs to gain favor with Lord Galvan so that Lord Galvan will lend help when the pirates come to raid the coastal towns of his fiefdom, or maybe he needs money to fund the restoration of a library. Or maybe he’s gambled himself into debt and is trying to find a way to pay off those debts and avoid putting himself and his whole family into destitution.
In certain stories involving high-status protagonists, focus is put on how special or important the protagonist is because of xir social status and/or title, while focus upon or even any regard to the protagonist’s actual responsibility and capability to uphold that responsibility in relation to the rest of society/the country/whatever is practically nonexistent. There might be much fuss made over how other people of title and status might try to use the protagonist to further their own agendas (which is definitely a very realistic issue that any neophyte to politics could face), but even while this is going on, the character’s actual responsibilities will be minimized in favor of pursuing and fulfilling personal goals.
Sometimes the works will focus on the character’s powers and utterly ignore the actual mundane responsibilities that go with the title/status the character has. In Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon, we never see Neo-Queen Serenity doing anything that actually relates to the responsibilities of being a monarch. We see that she can be incredibly powerful and is capable of personally defending the Earth against its enemies with her power, but that’s not the same. Compare Princess Celestia, who is both depicted as extremely powerful and as having to contend with the more mundane and tedious aspects of rulership.
In other stories, characters may be shown blowing off responsibilities to do as they please whenever they feel like it, with little or no repercussions resulting. It's as if these responsibilities are just hobbies for stuffy old fuddy-duddies, and not something that have to be tended to keep the company/fiefdom/kingdom/whatever operating. Whazzis, a meeting to determine how much funding to spend on the school lunch program? BORRRRING! I'm gonna sneak out and dance with my peasant girlfriend instead! Oh, you say there's a meeting to determine how much money we're going to spend on paying the guards? Pfffft, who cares about making sure the people who protect the company/kingdom can feed their families? I wanna have an ADVENTURE!
None of these scenarios are good if you want people to really buy that your character deserves xir status or title. Could your protagonist, for example, settle a property or territory dispute? What would your protagonist do if the party that was clearly in the wrong threatened to launch an attack that would kill thousands of innocent people if things didn’t work in xir favor? How will your protagonist deal with the inevitable situation where there is no “right” answer and no matter what xe chooses, someone who doesn’t deserve it is going to get shafted? Is xe going to make the tough decisions when others are looking to xir for guidance or direction, or is xe going to duck out and shirk them all the time?
And speaking of leadership, here’s really inconvenient aspect to it: you might have your own ideas about how things ought to be run, but you only get to further them if you can get enough people to agree with what you want to do - otherwise, you’re very likely to find yourself deposed. How will your character deal with this?
The high life is their comfort zone.
Whatever we grow up with is what tends to make us feel most comfortable and most at home, even if we do have some complaints about it. Most people who write about royalty come from middle or lower-class backgrounds, so that’s what makes them feel safe and at home. Thus, it seems reasonable (if only on a subconscious level) that that’s what their upper crust protagonists might yearn for.
It can make sense for an upper class character to yearn for a lower class lifestyle if xe has a perception that lower class people have more freedom in life and/or lead generally more fulfilling lives. But, as the expression goes, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Restrictive as the upper class lifestyle may be, it still comes with a lot of conveniences and niceties that are very easy to miss when they’re gone - and this doesn’t just mean being able to afford a new pair of Manolos (or whatever equivalent exists in the universe) or have your servants pamper you with a massage whenever the whim strikes. Depending on, it can mean the difference between having food that actually tastes good and having food that’s merely edible - or even having enough food. A princess who loves reading would have far easier access to new books than a lower-class woman who has to work three jobs just to live and barely has time enough for a few hours to herself at home, let alone to go to the local library (which is probably pretty small and piddling compared to a royal library).
While someone who grew up in a dilapidated home with a messy, weedy yard might find such conditions comforting and homey, someone accustomed to living in relatively clean and neat living conditions would likely find such conditions off-putting, and even disgusting. A tiny apartment might seem cramped and stifling after being used to a roomy palace.
After living like this for awhile, those borrrrring socials might not seem so bad after all. Even if conditions away from the high life aren’t that bad, other places won’t quite feel like home used to feel - and then there are those pesky feelings of nostalgia and homesickness that would inevitably pop up.
People in upper class positions have ways to justify inequality.
The Just World Fallacy is a powerful thing. A long-held view in Europe was that those of high blood were inherently made of better stuff than the lower classes - they were more noble, more intelligent, and granted with the natural ability to rule and govern - that’s why they were nobility and royalty in the first place, after all. It was in their blood - and divinely ordained, even!
And of course, because the peasants lacked the nice things the nobility had - eg, access to education, the means to learn what language and mannerisms were considered genteel, access to hygiene and medical treatment that would help curb things like disfiguring infections, of course they seemed like degenerate creatures in comparison.
In the US, the wealthy 1% frequently justify having more wealth than the 99% with the belief that they worked hard for it, while the poor are just lazy and shiftless. (Never mind that any number of them were born into privilege and were given their relatively cushy positions with paid vacations by virtue of knowing the right people moreso than their actual skill and talent, while any number of poor people work long hours on multiple jobs just to put food on the table.)
Of course, not every upper class person needs to see the world this way, particularly if they have empathetic/sympathetic personalities and have had personal experience with others. (Though, if they don’t have much experience dealing with people of lower classes, their sympathy may come off as a bit condescending.)
Let’s talk about clothes and thrones for a minute.
I’ve run into some people who seem to think that the outfits you see royalty and nobility wearing in their portraits is indicative of what they wore on a day-to-day basis. In fact, what you see in those pictures are people all dolled up in their finest. Their day-to-day clothes would have been much simpler. Check it for yourself - compare this portrait of Queen Victoria with this one.
These pictures of the Romanov family will give you some idea of what they wore on a daily basis (and did for fun!).
Also, crowns and tiaras are not a part of normal daywear, and are generally reserved for special and ceremonial occasions. In the real world, Princess Peach would only wear her trademark gown, gloves, and tiara combo to formal events.
And before you write your character griping and grumbling about corsets, please read these:
Yesterday's Thimble: Exploring The Myths of Corsets
Everything You Know About Corsets Is False
Steam Ingenious: Corset Myths
They’re people, and people have differing personalities, opinions, interests, and views.
Name any type of interest you can think of, and someone of rank/status has probably had it. Every virtue, vice, and quirk that you can think of in any other person, someone of the upper class can have. Don't be afraid to give them to your upper class characters. Any number of real royals, nobles, and other upper crust people have had hobbies, opinions, or behaved in ways that would have made the stereotypical “prim and proper” folks roll over.
You did see that picture of Princess Anastasia smoking while her father, y’know, Czar Nicholas, watched, didn’t you?
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