While revising The Fairies of Sadieville (available in two weeks!), my editor pointed out that some dialogue, for a subplot set in prehistory, sounded a bit too “modern.” When I stepped back and looked at it objectively, I had to agree. I had these primitive people speaking with the cadences, and more importantly in the syntax, of modernity. It was deliberate, since as always, I don’t want to put barriers between the characters and the reader. That didn’t mean, however, that it worked.
To revise it, I had to figure out just how people in this ancient time period would talk. I’m not talking about creating a language; it’s more a matter of rhythm.
In Charlton Heston’s autobiography In the Arena, referring to the script for Ben Hur, he says:
“Willy (director William Wyler) persuaded English poet/playwright Christopher Fry to come to Rome. […] His changes were seldom structural, but almost always stylistically crucial, such as changing ‘You didn’t like the food?’ to ‘The meal did not please you?’ (Not a trivial difference; the first is inescapably twentieth century, the second acceptably period.)”
When it comes to inhabiting history, I bow to Heston’s experience: the man played Moses, Andrew Jackson and Michelangelo. And when it goes wrong, you get this, written by Oscar Millard, delivered by John Wayne(!) as Genghis Khan(!!) in The Conquerer:
“She is woman – much woman. Should her perfidy be less than that of other women?”
So, there are my extremese: as good as Ben-Hur, not as bad as The Conqueror. But I’m neither Christopher Fry nor (thank goodness) Oscar Millard. I couldn’t mimic their styles. And I still believed that my guiding idea, to keep stylistic choices from getting in between the readers and the characters, was a good one.
So, how do you do it? Is it a matter of style, as Heston postulates? Or is there a deeper challenge?
When I first wrote this section of The Fairies of Sadieville set in the prehistoric past, I decided deliberately to give the dialogue a contemporary rhythm. I reasoned that, to the ancient people who spoke it, that’s how they would perceive their own language. Also, it made it easier for the contemporary reader; just as Shakespeare’s language can distance the reader or playgoer from the story, trying to write in a faux ancient style can seem precious, twee, and/or off-putting. I definitely wanted to avoid that.
And yet my editor has repeatedly proven that her suggestions are often spot-on and crucial, so I went back and rethought my approach. In short order, I discovered the problem: I had considered the context of this section of the book, but not its context in the novel as a whole.
There are three time periods represented: the modern world, 1915 America, and this prehistoric section. Obviously the modern world is easiest, and the 1915 world wasn’t much harder (although I did spend a great deal of research time tracking down when particular slang terms and sayings came into common use). But since the prehistoric section deliberately takes place before accepted paleontology says humans even existed, and involves fictional races of people, they really did need to speak differently.
The best popular example of a character speaking differently, but remaining comprehensible, is Yoda in the Star Wars films. Lawrence Kasdan, who scripted Yoda’s first appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, said in the annotated script:
“I remember that George had a feeling about the kind of speech he wanted Yoda to have. It had to do with inversion and with a kind of medieval feeling with religious overtones. Once we figured that out, it became very logical to have Yoda say, ‘Good it will be…’ Inverting everything did the trick.”
And it works, so much so that his cod philosophies have been taken as genuine spiritual insights by way too many people. “Do. Or do not. There is no try,” is probably the worst advice ever, and a nightmare when you’re trying to explain the concept of perseverance to your children. But I digress.
I regrouped and approached the language as English shorn of its later cultural quirks. After all, in the novel it’s a story being told, not an accurate literal transcription of events. In rhythm and a few bits of slang, I emulated the dialects of Great Britain, semi-implying that they originated with my fictional people. I cut vast swaths of text showing how characters learned each other’s language (I wasn’t writing anthropology, after all) and tried to focus on simply serving the narrative, not these linguistic tangents.
Does it work? You’ll have to decide. You can pre-order The Fairies of Sadieville here.