Continuing my musings inspired by The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Lawrence Sterne (see here for an overview of the novel).
|One of many diversions in the novel|
Point of view, primary and secondary characters: no-one told Tristram Shandy about these things. The poor man can’t even manage to maintain his status as the hero of his own memoirs. Almost as soon as a character appears, Tristram is obliged to stop and tell us his or her personal story, with no regard to flow of the plot. At the very beginning, we have a digression into the life of the midwife who helps deliver him; the ninth volume ends with a story of another minor character, the servant Obadiah. Tristram can barely make a point at times, let alone a point of view.
Even real-life authors have difficulties with characters getting out of hand. In fact, a recent discussion among my critique group led to comments and suggestions on this dilemma. Which leads me, in a truly Shandean line of reasoning, to the question, what particular dilemmas can plague historical writers when it comes to character?
Who said that?
Giving different characters distinct voices can be hard if we’re simultaneously attempting to make the characters sound Elizabethan, Jacobean, Neanderthal etc., regardless of the fact that not even Shakespeare made everyone sound Shakespearean. People from different classes or regions have particular characteristics to their speech, so go ahead and make that lower class Londoner sound like a cockney, whatever the time period.
In The Boleyn Inheritance by Elizabeth Chadwick, Katherine Howard, one of three (yes, three) first person narrators, becomes obsessed by French phrases, both a pathetic and humorous attempt at sophistication, but also a help in defining her voice.
Say that again?
That accent thing is a tightrope. Unless you’re a powerful or famous writer, giving a character an almost untranslatable dialect for the sake of authenticity is a bad idea. On the other hand, ye canna make every Highlander sound like Scotty from Star Trek (did I date myself with that reference?!).
Someone who succeeded admirably, in my opinion, is Judith Lindbergh, who transposed the voice of Medieval immigrants to Greenland in The Thrall’s Tale. Most of us will have to settle for some sort of compromise.
Lost in translation.
I touched on this in a previous post. Writing in English about a character who speaks another language causes the problems listed above, plus more. Depending on your familiarity with the original language, you could try to echo syntax, or throw in a few key words or phrases. Actually, if you’ve got practically no familiarity, you could grab a dictionary and do the same anyway. Or throw caution to the wind and use Google translator because platypus dances under blue clouds Monday please. Tristram assumes everyone is as polylingual as he is and thinks nothing of inserting several pages of Latin in a chapter. But do you use modern French for the average reader or eighteenth century French to be accurate? Where does the line between a natural and contrived language fall? Mon Dieu, c’est impossibile!
Where did that Queen come from?
Another dilemma occurs when, despite your endeavours to keep everything fictional, a real historical person insists on turning up in your story. This happened to Tristram – the Queen of Navarre turns up in a discourse on whiskers (V.i). You have three major options. 1. Spend countless hours of research getting the character right for one scene; 2. Steal the character from Elizabeth Chadwick, or better still, Jean Plaidy because she wrote about every historical character on the planet and she’s dead; 3. Create a caricature à la Timothy Spall’s Winston Churchill in The King’s Speech (I’m still wondering why he did that, by the way).
And if you want some real help, check out the following:
Vicky English has some hints on using POV to layer your scenes in her latest blog entry.
Kathy Lynn Emerson has a good discussion on the language question in her book How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries (see my earlier review).
The Inkwell Inspirations blog has a comprehensive section on writing resources, including several pertaining to character.