Using Your Authentic Narrative Voice

This seems to be in the air right now. Angeline posted something about it on Instagram the other day and then I got into a lively debate in a Facebook group about a related topic that my brain automatically connected – the use of English vs American English.

This is going to be a bit soapbox-y, but I won’t apologise for that. Feel free to mosey along if it’s not your cup of tea (see what I did there?)

When you’re building your world, no matter what genre you write, there is the possibility of setting it in the real world. Even epic fantasy, which we usually think of as having the defining characteristic of being set in a far away, fictional world full of swords and sorcery. But the absolute classic, which our podcast is even named after, The Chronicles of Narnia, is partially set in our world. So don’t ever rule it out.

If you’re going to be showing this world at all in your book, even this world but with a twist, you need to think about how your narrative voice will reflect that. The language you use, the dialogue of the characters and yes, your spelling, grammar and punctuation choices, will all have an impact on how the story reads.

The gist of this debate I was involved in was that writing in (international) English hurts book sales in the US market. Some authors were asking why on earth you would do that to yourself.

Most of us Brits were commenting along the lines of “I’m British, my books are set here, my characters are British, so it is authentic to write in English.”

If I were to start dropping the “u”s out of my words (colour, favourite etc) it would no longer be my authentic narrative voice. My books wouldn’t sound like me. My characters don’t bundle a prisoner into the trunk of their car, they use the boot. They drive on the correct side of the road too (that’s the left, folks).

I’m not going to Americanise my books in order to try and sell more books to the bigger US market because I would be sacrificing my integrity and the quality of my fiction. My world would be compromised.

Plus, and maybe this is naive, but I don’t really think it’s fair to assume that Americans can’t spot English when they read it! I am aware that Americans are exposed to far less international English than we are exposed to American English. We hear it constantly on our TVs and in the cinema. Most of the books we read are written in US English. We are as familiar with “color” as “colour”. We expect it if we’re consuming American-made media.

Why shouldn’t Americans expect to encounter UK English when reading a book written and set here?

The argument for Americanising our books is that Americans will leave bad reviews about the spelling if we don’t. I’m not saying this never happens, I’m sure it does, but it hasn’t happened to me (touch wood) and there is the ability to put a disclaimer in the book description or in the front of your book stating that the book is written in international/standard/UK English.

But really, why should we have to? Why can’t we expect Americans to adapt? I’m certain the vast majority of Americans are not as insulated or isolationist as some would have us believe.

But even more importantly than this, if we all Americanised our books, then in the long run the English language could be mostly replaced with American English. I don’t like the idea of a future without our delightful turns of phrase, such as “in a pickle” or “chuck it in the bin”.

There is an incredibly famous example of the most extreme kind of pandering to the US market; that of a first in series book by a debut author with a children’s story about a wizard…

The story goes that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was changed to “Sorcerer’s Stone” because American kids and parents wouldn’t realise the book was about magic otherwise.

Now, maybe our American readers won’t realise this, but the legend of the Philosopher’s Stone is not actually mega well-known here. It’s not like saying Excalibur. Most people, prior to the success of Harry Potter at any rate, wouldn’t have known what it was, or had only the dimmest of memories.

Yet the book became a bestseller here anyway. The cover and the marketing did the jobs they were meant to do.

Is the US market really so different as to need different messaging in the title?

We’ll never know if Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone would have been a best seller in the United States, but I don’t think Americans really need things dumbing down for them.

If I ever receive a negative review for my language use, then I will reply to it, I’ll address it in some way. The fact is, I’ve only ever had one review even mention it and it was a 5 star review that said how nice it was to see a book written in “the Queen’s English”! I didn’t half chuckle when I read it. I imagined the Queen reading aloud some of my more colourful dialogue and decided it would be hilarious. But I know what the reviewer meant, it was written in international, standard English, which is true.

So to bring this back to worldbuilding, because I promise, it is connected! You know your world best and you have your own unique voice. Don’t compromise on it for the sake of sales. Don’t sacrifice your authenticity.

This isn’t just about British vs American English either. If you’re Texas born and bred and writing a cowboy romance then go to town with your accent and dialect! It’s authentic. Don’t feel pressured into writing in a more neutral American style. Ask Irvine Welsh if Trainspotting would have been a best seller and adapted into one of the most successful British films of all time if he had written it in standard English.

Here endeth the lesson. I’ll get off my soapbox now and return you to real life. Thanks for reading.

~ Holly

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