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Omniscient Narrators and Historical Fiction:
Raven WilderIf you've got a story set in the past, and the narration is in 1st Person or 3rd Person Limited, it's natural that the narration won't mention anything that people from the time period you're writing about wouldn't know. But supposing you have an omniscient narrator, would it affect your enjoyment of the story if the narration mentioned things that people from your setting wouldn't know about? Like, let's say your story's set in the Roman Empire, and a scene at the Colosseum is described as "rowdier than any football game". Would a comment like that break your sense of immersion, or does it seem natural to you that the narrator knows what's happened in history between when the story's set and now? Also, same question, only applied to Constructed Worlds instead of historical time periods?
edited 28th Jan '12 2:34:30 AM by RavenWilder
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Woefully IneloquentThat would depend on the tone of the work. Non-serious omniscient narrator could mention anything without breaking my suspension of disbelief.
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K-11-2I would tend to avoid it where possible. I'm sure it can be gotten away with, but as no examples are coming to mind besides Terry Prachett it would be wise to be wary. (Not because he's bad, mind you, but because very few if any of us are as adept as he is.)
Fallen PaladinI personally don't like that sort of thing. It breaks immersion for me. I wouldn't like it either in historical or speculative fiction, though for different reasons: in a historical novel it might make me feel that I was being talked down to (as in your gladiatorial battle/football game example), whereas in a fantasy or SF novel it might just feel odd and out of place. And now I'm thinking about that notorious bit very early on in The Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf's firework dragon is described as making a noise like an oncoming train...
You always take us with you when you go
If the work wasn't too serious, it'd be fine. Or under specific circumstances, like if we're talking about an Earth person stuck in another world, or the narrator acting like some sort of tour guide through time.
Fallen PaladinGood point. In a comedy work with an often-broken fourth wall I wouldn't be bothered.
You always take us with you when you go
Chronicles of Narnia: C. S. Lewis adopted a chatty style of narration, so he get away with just openly stating the difference between Narnia and England. Horse and His Boy, Shasta had to wear his best clothes and then Lewis says don't worry, in Narnia, best clothes are comfortable. But the Lotr example of the firework sounding like a train does break the immersion.
OH LOOK! ROCKS!I've never had a problem with reading comparisons to things that don't exist in-story, but I can't wrap my head around writing it. In fact, I just prefer to write historical and fantastic fiction with third-person limited because I find everyday life in other settings interesting.
Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.
Shadowed PhilosopherIn my Naruto fic I try to keep the references in-universe—at one point had to change an instinctive reference that someone 'looked like they had just run a marathon', which really shouldn't exist there. I suppose it could work to make outside references, but I think it kind of breaks immersion.
Shinigan (Naruto fanfic)
Chronicles of Narnia: C. S. Lewis adopted a chatty style of narration, so he get away with just openly stating the difference between Narnia and England. Horse and His Boy, Shasta had to wear his best clothes and then Lewis says don't worry, in Narnia, best clothes are comfortable.I'd note that this kind of thing works for Narnia as well because it's a setting that co-exists with modern (well, more-or-less) Earth. Even with the same narrative style, if it was a pure conworld with no relation to ours, I'm not sure he could have gotten away with it. And to answer the question directly:
Would a comment like that break your sense of immersion, or does it seem natural to you that the narrator knows what's happened in history between when the story's set and now?Yes. I'm not going to do the intellectual process of considering how this makes sense with an omniscient narrator - what's going to register is that a story set in Ancient Rome just started talking about football.
edited 28th Jan '12 2:05:52 PM by nrjxll
Terracotta Soldier Man
what's going to register is that a story set in Ancient Rome just started talking about football.Quoted for truth. Anachronistic references are going to break your reader's sense of immersion if they don't fit the context. I'd go for a "Show, don't tell" approach — instead of comparing the colosseum crowd to something else, I'd describe what the crowd is actually doing.
Thunder, Perfect MindSpeaking for myself here, I find that if one is writing a piece of historical fiction, when it is not so early as to require translation conventions, it feels the most appropriate to write with the words that were used at the time. Take, for example, what I'm writing, which takes place roughly in what may or may not be the mid-1800s and, later, early 1900s. In writing it, I often check in the dictionary to see if the words in I happen to be using were used at the time, when they appeared, how they were used and so forth. (Then again, I already write in a somewhat archaic style, so I have a lot less of a problem with that sort of thing. Plus, a lot of slang is shockingly old.) Rule of thumb with very old things, though, is to make the dialogue/narrative voice natural without actually referencing anything from a later period.
edited 4th Feb '12 10:07:06 AM by JHM
Neal Stephenson didn't pretend The Baroque Cycle is written entirely in the 17th/18th century; he would insert more modern colloquialisms and references while keeping slang like mathematicks so to make things more clear and funny for the reader. There's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which is a pastiche of early 19th century writings, even Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and more.
edited 4th Feb '12 10:20:44 AM by QQQQQ
Thunder, Perfect MindYes, but he was pretty subtle about it. It should also be noted that, contrary to popular belief, the basics of the English language and how they are used really have not changed much since the end of the Northern Renaissance. Seriously, there are words and phrases that sound extremely modern that have been spelled and used in the same way for as long as five centuriesó"positively, " for example, or "dumb as a door-post." Mostly, our vocabulary seems to have diminished, but that's its own matter. (That and the peculiar capitalising of Nouns [but not of Gerunds] through unto the Era of Shakespeare...) The point is, you can be perfectly comprehensible to a modern audience using the language of the time. It just requires effort.
edited 4th Feb '12 10:23:34 AM by JHM
Fallen PaladinI'm with JHM here. That's how I've always tried to write historical fiction (the few times I have). Even if it's a story set in the Roman Empire, I've tried to only use words and concepts that a Roman of the time would have known if translated to Latin.
You always take us with you when you go
GlimmeronironHistorical fiction is my favorite genre to write, I'm really glad to see other writers here like it as well . The way I really prefer to read and write is to have a third person omniscient narrator, who is contempory to the time period. I feel like if the narrator mentions things, that the characters wouldn't know really throws me off. I become more aware of the technicallity of the story. I hope this is helpful. Hayley ^_^
NemesisIf you're using a storytelling device such as a modern academic translating or interpreting ancient (or otherworldly) texts, you can get away with it to a degree.
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