A few weeks ago, during a meeting with the Renegade Writers, our youngest member Josh said something that triggered a thought that has now evolved into today’s blog entry. One member was receiving feedback from the group about his work and collectively we all assumed, because of the dialogue, the period the chapter was set in was around the 1940’s, this was a different era to authors intention as he said, he had set the piece in the 1990’s. We all agreed that it was the phrases used and the writing style that led us to make the assumption. When the author asked how he could make it obvious the 1990’s was his intended era we all gave him our personal nuggets of advice. Then Josh said, “Put your character in the right period, not the period into your character,” and it all made sense.
If you have decided upon certain writing style for your work it makes sense that the characters must suit that style and not the other way around. How odd it will be for the reader if Algernon with his severe side-parting and monocle suddenly says, “I is down with me bitches.” It’s easier to fit the character to the period rather than try to fit the period to the character. Of course, Skin, the pock-marked youth in the hooded sweatshirt can easily get away with, “I is down with me bitches.” But ask him to say, “Lady Fanshaw, requires the driver to be punctual.” And he becomes unbelievable.
It’s so easy as your story evolves to forget original intentions and without realising it, your characters start to have personality transplants: Watch any British soap on TV and you’ll see twelve months down the line, following a change of in-house writers, suddenly the misogynist, alcoholic, wife-beater reforms and is baking cakes for the village summer fete, a perfect example of the writer trying to fit the character to the situation, all of which makes us think, he never do that and we feel cheated.
An author is free to set a story in any era, but without a full understanding of that time period can easily come unstuck. If you are better suited to gentle dialogue, then play to your strengths and set your piece in a time when people used the formalities of social intercourse. If you’re familiar with the way three prostitutes in a dingy flat would converse, then go with it, it’ll be all the better for your knowledge, however don’t make the mistake of thinking it’ll make good reading if Mary, the village mouse stumbles across this threesome. The dialogue will be unbelievable and your command of the situation will be weakened, much better that Mary happens upon an injured sparrow outside the vets and their eyes meet over a rolled up bandage.
Another point I’d like to raise is that whatever situation your character finds themself in must be a true to the period. The author must have an understanding of the music, TV programs, politicians in power etc. these things may never be used but will give the writer a rounded feel for the era. I remember reading one of my chapters for ‘52’ to the group. It was about a wedding and Jan said to me, the description of the wedding photo doesn’t ring true, you need to mention the brown suits and kipper ties everyone wore back then. Her advice was so true, nothing sets a period faster in the reader’s mind than a visual image they can file away as they absorb your words. No matter how much you want to write about something set in any particular period, you must have a full understanding of that time frame. I remember telling young aspiring actors to pay attention in history lessons at school, as you can never fully portray a Victorian, Roman etc. without an in depth understanding of the period. The same goes for writers.
Imagine you’re writing a story and your lead character is with a friend called Binks, who opens a handkerchief to reveal a sizeable emerald and he wants to comment on it, whatever the period in history your story is set, would he say the same thing? No. For example:
in 1840, he may say “Pray tell me, Mr Binks from whence you acquired this stone.”
In 1925, he could say, “I say Binky, that’s a spiffing gem.”
In 1970, he might say, “Hey man, that’s one cool rock.”
in 2005, he could say, “My man Binks, that green is well sick.”
In each situation the dialogue fits the period because the character’s speech is within the correct period in history, rather than trying to fit dated dialogue into a new era.