By 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. 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.
I turn now to language – an associated problem that needs to be solved in all fiction, but that is central to historical fiction.
Of course, avoid fake archaisms. 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.
Turning 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.
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. Don’t read for entertainment only. Pause over sentences. Mark them with a pencil. Look at how 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.
Get your copy of Richard’s latest Endeavour novel, The Devil’s Treasure, here!