It’s About Time!… Or is it?

“You don’t look like the rest,” Clare said, her eyes traveling over the scars on my skin.

“I was a warrior,” I told her. “But I can tell you’re not from any clan at all.”

She lowered her eyes and glanced at her sister briefly. “It’s true,” she admitted. “We did not come from these parts.”

I knew it. “Then where did you come from?”

She looked uncomfortable for a moment, then bent her knees in a strange gesture royal folk call a curtsy. “My name is Clare; how do you do?”

“I’m all right,” I answered, struggling with surprise. It was rather uncommon that someone should take interest in my personal well-being.

“This is my sister, Runa.”

I sensed it was my turn to say something about myself, but I never had to, because at that moment I heard someone calling me from outside in a most foreboding tone.

The Exile, p. 3

Part of the reason I knew Delta had to narrate The Exile was because hers was the voice I could hear most clearly—her tones, attitudes, and editorials all demanded expression. Not only that, but it seemed a large part of the story’s substance hinged on her commentary and interpretation of other characters and events. That being said, however, the main challenge of writing in her voice became apparent:

How would she have sounded in her time period?

The thing is, it’s not hard to identify a character’s voice as formal or informal. What is hard is knowing how to give a historical character a colloquial voice. This is especially true when little is known about the culture’s dialect.

I did my share of research regarding early medieval life and Scandinavian clans—so while the names of characters, clans, and places are fictional, their descriptions and hierarchies adhere closely to the historical reality. But when it comes to the actual languages, finding a way to make medieval Scandinavian vernacular sound laid-back and familiar would take a kind of linguistic wizardry I’m not sure exists. So the question becomes, “How do you strike a balance between sounding simultaneously historical and relatable?”

Some writers lean more modern than others, going so far as to insert a number of anachronisms or phrases that, while you’d never hear them in the story’s time period, make the characters and scenarios feel less foreign to us contemporary folk.

A prime example is Daisy Goodwin’s TV series “Victoria.” Although the costumes and accents are pretty convincing, I had to laugh when one of the dukes added, “Just saying” at the end of an otherwise elevated conversation. While most of the dialogue doesn’t drip so heavily with modern lingo, it’s still obvious that Goodwin gives her characters some current turns of phrase to make them more accessible.

But the question of balance still stands.

Because, although some modern phraseology can lower the barrier between character and reader, it can also polarize those who want to see more historical accuracy. Because of the challenges surrounding The Exile’s setting (and because Delta’s relatability was so central), I chose to err on the more modern side—something not everyone would agree with.

So how does a writer find the balance? Are there ways to make a character’s voice colloquial without compromising the historical integrity?

What are some other works (books, movies, or shows) that achieve this balance? Which ones miss the mark?

And of course, if you have read/are reading The Exile, please let me know what you think about this particular aspect of the novel.

Did the voices work for you? Why or why not?

2 Comments on “It’s About Time!… Or is it?

    • While it is a real dilemma, I think a good deal of it comes down to 1) your audience and 2) the overall point of the story. The problem is that nailing these down can be pretty hard! I’m definitely interested in other writers’ thoughts on this, so please share any insights you’ve gained in the process! 🙂

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: