Writers! – Keep Your Characters Off the Streets!

All writers have favorite characters from history, and exploring them through story-telling is, at times, difficult to resist. I know, having fallen in Mark Twain quicksand and getting out only by making him share the spotlight with two other characters. Here, then, is rule number one, unless you’re going to put a new slant on an old face – seek that character’s era, then seek out an utterly anonymous story from behind your famous figure. Great hits have come from exploring rats that sailed with Columbus – and one famous cricket has out-earned many a flesh-and-blood human. So, if Napoleon’s your man, go for the assistant cook that peels his potatoes, the roach who lives in one of them or the wayward soul who either made or shines his saber. The minor to anonymous figure in a famous era is nothing less than an undiscovered vein of literary gold.
No one should be dissuaded from choosing an era that most fascinates them. Once chosen, however, it must emit at least a “faux” reality, unless it is off-world. If it’s foreign, find someone of that country, literary works and recordings from their story-tellers. More important than the way they do they think? How do they communicate with those around them? How do they feel about those around them? Are they short and curt, broad and chatty, poetic or basic? Upon which “power words” are their conversations based? Do you have a sense of THEIR humor? Are they intimately familiar with the situation in which you put them? Could you act it out in front of a mirror, mastering all of the voices?
If you are writing in a dialect that people recognize or, in most cases, think they recognize, go overboard, far overboard… in the privacy of your studio at the computer. Before you publish, however, “consult consult consult” – then reexamine your copy and “retreat retreat retreat” until you have reached a satisfactory level of subtlety. Then, retreat even further, until you’re certain that every nuance of their speech is no more than a hint and natural byproduct of the character’s milieu.
Getting the twenty first century out of historical speech is like getting rid of ants or termites, and you can’t pass over one word without careful inspection. Many of our colloquialisms have moved to the center of our lexicon, but are still examples of misplaced slang to someone from the eighteenth century. Much of history is based upon class distinction saturated with minute variations of speech. From the hog-slopper to the Stubenmaedchen and on to the queen herself, you’ll have to comb out the obvious and overblown in multiple passes. For pieces such as Elizabethan settings, you’d best go the extra mile and have it read aloud with one person per character and a narrator.
Being drawn to a specific slice of life in a specific time is the very best reason to write about it, but have your passport in order and don’t write like a tourist. Until we’ve worked it out to the minutest detail, they always see us coming a mile away.

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