Friday, November 6, 2020

Dialogue in historical fiction

When one is writing historical fiction (or fantasy, because let's face it, most fantasy is some version of historical fiction for the setting, with the addition of magic), a question is how to handle dialogue.

Should one's characters sound sort of medieval? (or to be more accurate, like Shakespeare).  Do you want them to say things like, "Zounds, thou hast e'en be-caus├Ęd me to besmircheth mine trew."  Okay, let's hope that no one would actually have a character deliver this line.  But the temptation is often strong to have dialogue reminiscent of the costumed performers at a Renaissance Faire.

Here it's important to realize that real medieval people (or medieval-style people in fantasy) were not wearing costumes.  They were just wearing clothes.  In the same way, they weren't speaking archaic English.  They were speaking their ordinary language.

The challenge is to give the characters dialogue that will allow the reader to have enough suspension-of-disbelief to imagine (without really thinking about it) that the characters are speaking an English translation of what they are actually saying.  (It's fiction, so with luck the readers are already prepared to suspend belief.)

I write fantasy set in an alternate version of medieval France in the Count Scar series, co-authored with Robert A. Bouchard, but you won't catch us having our characters say, "Franche contesse, Diex te puist consellier!  Iceste chose ne vuel plus respitier."  This is real twelfth-century Old French (it's from the epic Raoul de Cambrai), and it means, "Noble countess, may God guide you!  I do not wish to delay to do this any longer."  I sense our readers would abandon us if we started slapping Old French into our stories.


But does this mean that characters should just talk like twenty-first century people?  No, that doesn't work either.  I try especially to avoid idiomatic expressions that are based on things foreign to medieval people.  For example, baseball has added a lot to our turns of phrase.  "He really struck out on that."  "He couldn't get to first base with her."  "I try to be fair, I just call the balls and strikes as I see them."  But even though modern baseball has medieval roots, as I've discussed previously, medieval people would not have used such expressions.

Football and basketball phrases don't work either.  "He shoots, he scores!"  "They're just going to run out the clock."  "He's trying to defend from his own five-yard line."  "They're trying a Hail Mary pass."  And of course the latter only works if you've got Christianity in your fantasy world.

Then there are expressions that go back to nineteenth-century clipper ships.  "He's a loose cannon."  "He's three sheets to the wind."  "All hands on deck!"  Well, maybe you could use them if your fantasy has something like a "Pirates of the Caribbean" setting.  But not pseudo-medieval.

In the same way, there are hordes of informal phrases that would just strike a jarring note.  "The joke made her crack up."  "This is one hot mess."  "Hey, don't freak out."  "Give me a break!"  Many are catch-phrases that got their start in popular movies or TV ads.  "The good, the bad, and the ugly."  "Shake and bake."  "Where's the beef?"  "Houston, we have a problem."  "Rinse and repeat."  "A few French fries short of a happy meal."  "That chick is toast!"

I try to make people speak sort-of formally but not archaically.  If you want to use catch-phrases, make some up!  If you have dragon-riders in your fantasy, surely that experience would have generated sayings or expressions.  Same thing for the people on intergalactic space ships in science fiction.

© C. Dale Brittain 2019

For more on medieval social history (and its modern descendants), see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback!

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