Character Development and Language in Historical Fiction

Character Development and Language in Historical Fiction:
A Guide for Beginners

Richard Blake

How do you develop characters in historical or any other fiction? How do you use language?

My answer to the first of these questions probably says as much about me as about the question. But here it is:

At all times, and in all places, interesting people are motivated by sex and power and money.

This is a partial truth, I agree. Ignore it, though, even in romantic fiction, and you will fail as a writer. The world is stuffed with nice people. The world would collapse without them. But hardly anyone wants to read about them. My advice is to stick to sex and power and money.

No doubt, the immediate objects and the means of pursuing them will depend on local circumstances. The Ancients, for example, saw boys as well as women as legitimate targets of their affections, and power and wealth were often achieved by religious means. This being said, there is no better way of generating five hundred pages of text than to start with the collision of two or more sets of very sharp elbows. A dash of morality comes in handy for the resolution. Readers like to see the very bad end badly and the comparatively good to end well. But it’s the nasty characters who get remembered. Count Fosco is easily the star of The Woman in White. Ayesha dominates She. The lights go out in Paradise Lost whenever Satan is off-stage.

So, if you are about to start a novel – especially a first novel – find yourself a protagonist who isn’t over-scrupulous, and then a villain who glitters with dark allure. Assuming you can turn out grammatical English and construct a plot, you will have trouble gong wrong.

I turn now to language – an associated problem that needs to be solved in all fiction, but that is central to historical fiction. Let me begin by showing how it shouldn’t be done. Take this:

The King rose up upon his couch. “Thou shalt, before this night is out,” he quoth, “mount upon thy trusty charger and bring me the head of the false Bobindrell.”

Whether people may once have spoken like this in England is beside the point. What matters is that it sounds ridiculous now, and it distances a reader from the characters in a novel.

Whether your novel is set in England c1550, or some other time and place, here is how I suggest it should be done:

Still smiling, the King leaned closer. “I want the fucker dead,” he breathed. “I don’t care how you do it. Just make sure none of the blame ever drifts my way.” He took another sip of wine and went back to watching the jugglers.

I’ve taken this from my novel The Devil’s Treasure. I could have quoted from any other competent practitioner – but why not from myself? The rule is that you avoid words and phrases and images that only make sense in our own civilisation. Suppose you are writing a novel set during the time of Queen Elizabeth, you avoid phrases like “He looked up: her words had switched on a light in his mind,” or “the temperature was dropping fast.”

Of course, you also avoid the fake archaism I’ve just parodied. My advice is to make a distinction between dialogue and description. For descriptive passages, you write in fully modern English, avoiding only those words and phrases and images that are unique to the past few hundred years. For dialogue, I suggest a slight tinge of the eighteenth century, which is the earliest age in which the writers speak directly to us – but whose language is also slightly distant.

Try this for a novel set in the European past:

“My Lord Bishop,” I sighed, “you really should consider how much you are pissing off our Imperial Lord and Master.”

Ignore anyone who writes in to say that “pissed off” came into use only after the Second World War. The phrase may shock an etymologist just as much as references to electric light or a thermometer. But it won’t jar with the average reader. And it’s the average reader who pays your bills.

Or suppose you are writing a novel set in the recent past in England – say 1910. I’ve never done this, but I think the same rules apply. Indeed, the formal language of 1910 remains part of our own register. So too most of the vulgar language. Here, the only problem is avoiding both obvious novelty and a stale pastiche of Wells and Galsworthy.

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But I turn to my own case. Most of my novels are set in the early Byzantine Empire. Six of these are told in the first person. The guiding assumption here is that the narrator is writing in the educated Greek of the seventh century, with some regard to the conventions of the classical language, and that this has now been translated into modern English. This allows me more freedom than I might have if I were writing novels set during the Napoleonic Wars. Keeping within the rules already given, I can waver between a faintly or very Augustan English, and – depending on the education and intelligence of a speaker – a more or less competent archaism, and the frankly colloquial.

Examples, both from my Curse of Babylon:

“What female dares invade this place of manly recreation?” Nicetas groaned in a deathly voice. He fell back into his chair and began a choking cough….

“If I were you, My Lord,” came the instant reply, “I’d get off my lazy, fat arse and kiss my son-in-law.”

It’s nearly the same with the other novels that are told in the third person. The only difference is that I am describing rather than expressing the thoughts and impressions of the protagonist. This allows greater freedom – though always within the rules already given.

These are, I agree, radically abbreviated answers to questions that may deserve a book. I have written a book in which I try to discuss them. You can have it for free. However, rather than beg you to download this, or to buy any of my other books, let me give my final advice. This is to go carefully through Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander, and through Gore Vidal’s Julian. If you haven’t read these, I can promise you a wonderful read. But don’t read for entertainment only. Pause over them. Mark them with a pencil. Look at how these writers handle the language of characters who lived and died a long time before we were born, and note how they make a convincing job of the effort.

Then have your own go at it.

© 2017, richardblake.

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