Dialogue in Historical Fiction

shakespeare


I would like to thank Sue Bahr at author-in-training for her comment on my last post which provided the inspiration for this one.


As any writer of historical fiction knows, crafting convincing period dialogue can be difficult—particularly when the period in question is well beyond living memory. On the one hand, you want to strive for authenticity. But on the other, the language must be comprehensible to modern readers. It is a perilous balancing act that each writer must negotiate in a manner consistent with his or her own voice.

Sounds easier said than done, doesn’t it? Perhaps it might be useful to look at some examples to see if the techniques utilized would be appropriate for your current writing project. Since I am most comfortable in the medieval period, let’s use that as our setting.

Let’s first consider some dialogue taken directly from the period as an example of complete authenticity. Here is a passage from Thomas Mallory’s, Le Morte d’Arthur published in 1485.

 “…for I haue promysed to doo the bataille to the vttermest by the feythe of my body whyle me lasteth the lyf / and therfor I had leuer to dye with honour than to lyue with shame / And yf it were possyble for me to dye an C tymes I had leuer to dye so ofte / than yelde me to the / for though I lacke wepen / I shalle lacke no worship / And yf thow slee me wepenles that shalle be thy shame…”

As you can see, it is written in Early Modern English, a successor to the Middle English of Chaucer. Certainly decipherable by the modern reader, but not very appealing. So we can make the immediate assumption that some level of modernization is desirable, even necessary.

Here is the same passage in Modern English:

 “For I have promised to do the battle to the uttermost, by faith of my body, while me lasteth the life, and therefore I had liefer to die with honour than to live with shame; and if it were possible for me to die an hundred times, I had liefer to die oft than yield me to thee; for though I lack weapon, I shall lack no worship, and if thou slay me weaponless that shall be thy shame.”

Better, certainly, but it still doesn’t trip off the tongue of a 21st century reader easily. It continues to exhibit words that are unfamiliar and the sentence structure is a bit alien in places.

So let’s fast forward a hundred years or so and look at a passage from Shakespeare from 1599. The following is a speech made by the King of France in Act 3, Scene 5 of Henry V.

“Where is Montjoy the herald? Speed him hence;
Let him greet England with our sharp defiance.
Up, Princes, and, with spirit of honour edged
More sharper than your swords, hie to the field:
…For your great seats now quit you of great shames.
Bar Harry England, that sweeps through our land
With pennons painted in the blood of Harfleur.
Rush on his host as doth the melted snow
Upon the valleys, whose low vassal seat
The Alps doth spit and void his rheum upon;
Go down upon him, you have power enough,
And in a captive chariot into Rouen
Bring him our prisoner.”

Who can argue with the Bard? It’s masterful writing! But if our readers wanted to read this type of masterful writing, they would probably pick up Shakespeare, not us. I would argue that it would be a mistake to try and imitate the greatest writer in the English language. Most of us could never hope to capture his voice for an extended project anyway. And even if we could, there is a question of whether folks today would buy it.

I would also note that in this play Shakespeare was writing about events that occurred in 1415—184 years prior. Had he attempted historical accuracy he would have written it in Middle English and French. But he chose to write it in the language of his own time. This is another powerful argument against a slavish adherence to historical accuracy in dialogue.

So now, let’s consider an example closer to our own time. Below is a passage from G.A Henty’s St. George for England published in 1885.

“Women suffer most from wars, no doubt…and yet do you mark that they are more stirred by deeds of valour and chivalry than are we men; that they are ever ready to bestow their love upon those who have won honour and glory in war, even although the next battle may leave them widows. This has been always somewhat of a marvel to me; but I suppose that it is human nature, and that admiration for deeds of valour and bravery is ingrained in heart of man and will continue until such times come that the desire for wealth, which is ever on the increase, has so seized on all men that they will look with distaste upon everything which can interfere with the making of money and will regard the man who amasses gold by trading as a higher type than he who does valiant deeds in battle.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. This is sounding more like clearly understandable modern language that is simply being cast in a somewhat archaic style. For us modern readers, it has the advantage of being easily recognizable, while still providing our imaginations with an auditory link to the past. To be sure, it is not an authentic, historically accurate link, but our imaginations don’t necessarily need that. Your world-building will fill in the blanks.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that in 1885 Henty’s dialogue sounded much less archaic than we perceive it to be today. So, we can assume that even Henty chose to move closer to the language that his readers actually spoke.

Which brings us to the present day. Let’s finally consider a current author who has had great commercial success in the genre. Here is a passage from Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom, published in 2004.

“What happens to you, Uhtred, is what you make happen. You will grow, you will learn the sword, you will learn the way of the shield wall, you will learn the oar, you will give honor to the gods, and then you will use what you have learned to make your life good or bad.”

Simple, clear, and understandable. It derives its authenticity from its context. It contains names, activities, and values authentic to the period. The language seems less important. Cornwell’s world-building has already put us in the period and he is simply using the dialogue to reinforce what we already imagine. This type of writing puts more pressure on the author to do his or her research so that the world they are building is as authentic as possible. This then frees the author to use the dialogue simply to build character and to drive the plot forward. When considered in this light, the choice of speech and dialect seem less important. What then becomes paramount in dialogue is the avoidance of blatant anachronism—putting words into a character’s mouth that will pull the reader’s imagination back out of the period.

But that is another topic for another post. Let’s sum up what we have learned about dialogue in historical fiction.

  1. Complete authenticity in dialogue (beyond living memory) is virtually impossible and generally undesirable.
  2. Dialogue is most effective when it is in language easily recognizable and understood by the reader.
  3. Don’t rely on dialogue to create your setting—it merely needs to reinforce. Allow your world-building to do the heavy lifting involved in moving your reader’s imagination into the period.
  4. Don’t allow your dialogue to counteract the effects of your world-building by falling into the trap of anachronism.

I hope you have found this post to be helpful. If so, click follow and drop me a note. I would love to hear from you.


 

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8 thoughts on “Dialogue in Historical Fiction

  1. Wonderful, succinct and wel crafted. This was a great post with clear examples. Well done!
    And thanks for mentioning me- gave my ego just a little pat and there’s nothing wrong with that!
    Next up- questions about writing characters with brogues. As in, how or should you?
    Thanks-
    Sue

  2. Thanks, Sue. As to dialect, I would just say that it is my experience that a little goes a long way. If there is too much it will affect a reader’s flow. They have to stop and think about what the character is saying. If I am using dialect I try to pick only certain sounds or certain words that need emphasis. For instance, I might have a character that drops his “h”s. Not too hard for a reader to follow but it conveys the character’s manner of speech and hints at social status. I would suggest that you take a look at Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. There is a lot of brogue but he picks certain words to toss in that demonstrate the brogue but are easily distinguishable by a reader. You will also notice that most words in the sentence are written normally. He doesn’t try to imitate the dialect on every word. Hope this helps. Cheers.

  3. Great post! I find that adding subtle period highlights like authentic spellings, idioms, and even profanities can add a sense of historical reality to a scene, though of course you are right, and this “authenticity” is basically an illusion. I love the dialogue in I, Claudius and Gone With the Wind; the voice in both cases is fluent and contemporary, but also very believable in a premodern context.

    • Thanks for the comment, David. You are absolutely right. The little details are important. The use of archaic medical terms, curses, and even attitudes help to further the illusion. Cheers.
      Jim

  4. I am a novice author who struggled with this problem throughtout the writing of LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS. The setting is 9th century Chaco Canyon, NM. It is a story of the Ancient Pueblos and there lies the problem. The Ancient Pueblos had no written word and we have no idea what language they spoke. How do you devise a 9th century language that no has ever heard and make it appealling to modern readers? I leaned heavily on the Hopi language for names of clans and individuals. I did take some terms from the Zia language, which was very interesting. As for dialogue, I kept it simple, but not dull. The Ancient Pueblos were intelligent people and I wanted to make them sound that way. We will see if I was successful. LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS went live back in August.

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