The Icelandic sagas were an ancient path that subsequent writers didn’t go down. I’m fascinated by lost versions of reality and thought I had found one in the still-born Icelandic sagas that seemed to dead-end their literature.
So I’ve turned Robert Kellogg’s fine introduction to The Sagas of Icelanders on its head and tried to imagine what modern novels would be like if they were written by Vikings.
In this effort, I’ve been influenced by Tony Curtis. You surely spent at least one Saturday afternoon as a kid with a one-eyed Kirk Douglas and with Tony Curtis and his medieval Brooklyn accent in that big boy’s adventure movie, The Vikings.
Imagine that there could be a book entitled, A Short History of Medieval Brooklyn. There would have to be such a book in order to justify Tony’s accent in that movie. That’s my premise for telling authors how to write like Vikings. Please give this post credit if I start a new literary movement.
Narrative voice: The first requirement for writing like a Viking is that you have to give up any thought of writing in first person. Your narrative voice can’t have any distinctive personality at all. Narrative voice has to be anonymous. It has to disappear. In it’s place you should consider that the word saga is related to our word say. If you are writing a novel, you are reporting what people say, in the sense of they say that… When you write a novel you are presenting the reader with reality, not yourself.
Character development: This is an easy one to remember. There isn’t any. We are so used to the genetic approach to presenting character that we can’t imagine that writing fiction can be done any other way. If a character is angry, or selfish, gentle or a deep thinker, the modern reader expects an explanation of how the character got that way. Or prospectively, we expect to see the character evolve during the course of the story.
There’s none of that if you write like a Viking. Characters are presented as being a certain way: as brave or cowardly for example. The story accepts them the way they are.
This is extremely pragmatic. It’s in-your-face reality testing. Suppose you’re starting a job at a new company and you don’t know anyone. You don’t want to know the childhood histories of your new co-workers. You want to know who you can trust. You want to know who is competent and who is lazy. You need to watch your back until you get your bearings. And you will be on the lookout for potential friends. You have to deal with it.
That’s what happens in Viking fiction. Characters have to deal with it and they have to do deals. Who can you deal with and who’s a problem to deal with? Viking characters are very practical people.
Family: Viking sagas are family sagas. The most important relationship is who your father is and who your mother’s family is. Viking fiction is full of strong women characters even though this is still a male dominated society.
There are also brethren relationships among characters who are not related. Like, the Three Guys form a wolf pack. That’s how we refer to ourselves. We may live across the country but we stick up for one another. We are stronger together.
Being an outsider: If you write like a Viking, lead characters need to be outsiders. Some Viking heroes are literally outlaws. Most characters either bend the law or violate ethical or social standards in some way.
That’s where the conflict comes in that generates the story. Some norm is not followed or some close family connection does not work out. There is a dispute about property or cattle and lawsuits and murder may follow. To risk being driven out of the community is to risk madness and death, the legendary and the magical enter these stories, if at all, in the wilderness.
Kellogg tells how a character may leave Norway for Iceland in order to escape the confining reality of being ruled by a king. But the character may in turn find the regulated agricultural society of Iceland too confining and make for the wilder North American coast, escaping from their escape.
To be a character in a work fiction is to be an outsider. When the reader turns the page of a story, what they notice is why a character seems different. Writers create outsiders. And the stories of outsiders is what makes our literature.