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Worlds Apart June 2008

The Question of the Narrator’s Voice



For the past three or four months, we’ve been looking at various issues surrounding dialogue. We’ve seen how it can be used to set historical perspective and context, how to use it to describe historical events and also how dialogue is used to help create for readers a sense of how people actually sounded in the past. We also mentioned how easy it is to destroy a historical setting by using anachronistic or inappropriate words or phrases.


All of this talk about speech, as it were, leads us to another consideration. Dialogue is used to help move a story forward, but narration is necessary as well. Narration is the means whereby you connect scenes, describe and illustrate characters or actions and so on. Showing things is usually better than telling them, but telling can’t be dispensed with entirely. In fact, in historical fiction, there is often more telling than there is in other forms of fiction because you are setting your story in a world with which readers are not familiar.


All this, then, brings us to a question: What about the voice used in narration?


The concept of the term voice in writing isn’t always an easy thing to grasp. For me, however, voice is the element that separates one writer from another: a combination of their use of language, their style of writing and the actual sound of their prose. Leaving aside the characters, for example, it would be very hard to confuse the work, or voice, of Steven King with that of J. K. Rowling.


So, what has all this to do with historical fiction?


Well, here’s the thing. The style or voice employed in narration can help create the historical setting or detract from it. Just as your characters must sound as if they belong in their own time when they speak, so must the narration – but to a lesser extent. And it is that last point that can cause a problem.


Let us suppose your story is set in England in the early seventeenth century, during the reign of King James I who succeeded Elizabeth in 1603. Now we have a splendid example of how English was written at that time, and it is, of course, the King James Bible first published in 1611. However, while you would take care to make sure your characters spoke in a manner generally compatible with that period, you would not employ a biblical style of narration. That would certainly be overkill. However, by the same token, you would not use a twentieth century narrative style either. It is a question of careful balance. Let’s just look at an example of what I’m trying to impart here. Consider this statement in relation to the preparations for a battle in the seventeenth century:


As they looked across the valley at the vast host opposing them, the French generals all but trembled with fear.


Now try this:


When they saw the opposing army, the French generals were extremely frightened.


Those two sentences essentially convey the same meaning, but the voice is very different. When combined with appropriate dialogue for the time, however, the second one would sound a jarring and discordant note. It would immediately distract the reader, and if such distractions were found throughout the story, the reader may quite possibly decide not to continue.


It is necessary, therefore, as you write historical fiction, to work carefully to avoid the distractions caused by what one might call anachronistic narration. That is, the use of words, phrases or expressions that are not commensurate with the time period in which your story is set. At the same time, however, you must be equally careful not to overdo it. It’s a little tricky at times, and next month we’ll look at some tips on how to strike the right balance.