Using Dialog and Tone to Keep Your World Real
I’m sure the ancient Greeks had an expression that translates perfectly into, “Hey dude, whassup?” But if Alex came up to Heph in the Legacy of Kings training pit and said that, it would rip the reader right out of 340 BC. By the same token, something like “Methinks to smite thee” (translation: I’m going to kick your butt) sound artificial, contrived, and really annoying.
So how do you write good dialog for your historical novel? How do you keep the tone believable?
First of all, know your characters. Each one has a unique blend of history, personality, education, and social status. In Legacy of Kings, the soldiers’ trainer, Diodotus, is gruff and foul-mouthed. When Jacob arrives late to practice, Diodotus
… straightens, spits out the grass, and scowls. “You’ll have a lot worse than shit running down your leg in battle if you keep this up. And speaking of shit, while the other men are taking a break this afternoon you will be cleaning out the barracks latrines. Now get to work.” This salty little speech is perfectly acceptable considering who Diodotus is.
Alexander, on the other hand, raised as the heir to the throne, is more formal in his speech, especially when addressing his royal council or his men.
“Clytias, you have fought well today!” he cries to a sweaty bearded man leaning on his spear. “Your father’s shade is proud of you! Make sure to hold this side firm when they attack.”
Then there’s Alexander’s half-sister, Cynane, who, though a royal princess, is a nasty bundle of pain and ambition. When she sets fire to a would-be assassin,
He falls to the floor, writhing as the flames turn his face into a blistering, bubbling mess. Leaning on her shield, she looks at him and smiles. “Call me ‘bitch’ again,” she says.
In dialog, every word should count, evoking details, images, and information about the character’s personality, history, and what he/she feels in the moment. “Call me ‘bitch’ again” pretty much sums up Princess Cynane in four words.
Remember, too, that all cultures in all ages have both formal and colloquial speech, and we all use a range of both depending on the situation. The English you use in a job interview (“That is correct. I received my Masters Degree in…”) is probably different from the English you use when hanging with friends. (“And like, then I said no way! And like, then he said, way!”) By the same token, the historical character who delivers a flowery oration to lawmakers in the morning might speak very differently sitting in a tavern that evening.
Then there are certain words or expressions that stick out at odd angles in historical fiction, that sound jarringly modern or American. My Legacy editors had me remove “what on earth,” “by God” (this is 340 BC so which god?), and “what the hell.”
Lastly, it’s always fun to sprinkle your text with a few foreign words for spice, a subtle reminder that we’re not in Kansas anymore, but not too many, as that just gets irritating. So in Legacy of Kings you will see oenochoe (a wine pitcher), krater (a huge bowl used to mix wine and water), rhyton (a drinking vessel whose bottom is usually an animal head), harmanaxa (a Persian carriage), and petteia, a Greek board game.
Next Week: Dirt, Dung, and How They Dealt With It.
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