Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I've been reflecting the past couple of days on the use of anachronisms in fantasy writing. The basic principle is to beware of using elements in writing that wouldn't exist in the given setting. For a medieval setting, generally, they shouldn't have modern language or technology that wouldn't exist yet. You wouldn't see a medieval knight going to the local bookstore, because without a printing press, books were an expensive commodity, and one would only find them in a store that deals with expensive commodities. For the most part, to find a book, you'd have to go to the personal library of some wealthy lord. If you wanted a book store in your medieval fantasy, just like you might have a butcher shop or a tailor, you would need to explain somehow that your medieval fantasy world actually had the means to mass-produce books that might be distributed to local shops.

People can be varying degrees of particular, though I suppose most professional writers are precise and deliberate about their word choices. For instance, I read from one writer that he wouldn't have one knight say to another that he was being "paranoid," because that particular word originated with the introduction of psychology (though I suppose he may have meant psycho-analysis, but I'm not sure), a study which they didn't have in the middle ages yet. But this same author admits to using contractions and phrases that make the narrative flow for his readers. Though a medieval merchant might not have said "Don't do that!" we can't have the narrative sounding stilted or choppy by having everyone say "Do not," instead of "don't."

So here's my shtick with this issue. People have a range of perceptions about what is anachronistic and what is not. "Sure," "yeah," "okay," might be fine for some and not for others. Most people seem to have problems with more obvious slang choices like, "What's up?" or "Hey, man, how's it hangin." No one seems to recognize that nearly all of today's English Language would be an anachronism in a medieval setting. A knight would never have said, "What's up?" but neither would he have said, "How are you, my lady?" The middle ages cover a lot of time, but think of this, Shakespeare was writing his plays in the late 16th century, more than four hundred years ago. His use of language is understandable, once you get used to it, but the sentence structure and word usage varies largely from our own. The King James Bible was printed in 1611, full of its "Thee"s and "Thou"s and its "haveth"s and "haveth"s "not." Nowhere do we find anyone saying "How are you, my lady?" And yet, most medieval settings are based on the feudal systems of the 11th and 12th centuries. Many are a conglomerate of several time periods, but when asked if it fits in a medieval setting, you're usually asking about the 12th century or so - that's more than four hundred years, again, before Shakespeare. If you look at the way they spoke to one another, it is hardly intelligible to our modern English speakers. You might catch a few words you know, and after a lot of listening pick up a lot you might recognize because it sounds similar, but here's the point: There is nearly NOTHING in our modern language that actually "fits" the medieval setting.

So, if every formation of sentences in modern English is anachronistic, what's all the fuss about "What's up?" or "Hey, dude"? Well, it's a bit difficult to say. I mean, just because paranoid was a psychology word, does that mean they didn't have a word for people who always acted like the world was out to get them? If they did, and it was a completely different word from any we use today, shouldn't we use "paranoid" to convey it, and is it really more out of place than saying, "he thought the world was out to get them"? I'm pretty sure, "out to get them" is a fairy recent phrase that has no business in the mouths of knights, kings and queens. When it comes down to it, aren't we taking a language that doesn't even exist anymore and translating it into the modern tongue? Aren't we taking people and places that don't really exist, assigning them identities in settings that are very little like our own and then articulating in modern-day terms what it was like and what people said to each other in stories that we're making up ourselves? Perhaps "paranoid" were only a psychological term today, I might understand, but considering its use in our everyday language, it seems appropriate to use it to convey what we're trying to convey. If you mention "ibuprofen," I think you'll get some heads turning and wondering, "Really? they had ibuprofen?" It's the kind of element that really interrupts an enjoyable read, and it seems unbelievable if you haven't already been told that a time-traveling doctor has come back in time and altered history with his understanding of medicine.

With this in mind, writers (or aspiring writers, like me) might think that anything is really fair game, and the truth is that yes, it is. You actually can write whatever you want, and anyone who says that a knight "wouldn't have said," "Hey, dude," is just mind-blowingly ignorant of the fact that "Hey, dude" was your interpretation of the way in which a medieval knight, who doesn't speak the same language as us, greeted his fellow medieval knight, who also doesn't speak the same language as us. Clearly, you were trying to convey by using the colloquial expression, "Hey, dude," that this character has an informal attitude and a casual relationship with the object of his greeting. Also, you might be trying to say that his general manner resembles that of a surfer or a hippie, that he roams the earth rescuing damsels in much the same way as a surfer "dude" roams the beach picking up chicks. The problem is that you will find a majority of readers (and editors) who expect to become engrossed in a medieval tale of wizardry and courtly intrigue, and they find themselves interrupted with their formerly fantastical characters suddenly sounding not so fantastical. Many might throw the book/manuscript down in disgust, as if you had just betrayed or insulted them. Despite the fact that it may be their fault for not understanding what you're trying to do or not being able to accept a knight that says "dude," you've still lost a majority of your readership and most likely it won't get that far because you've got no book deal.

Here's the thing: Anachronistic dialogue is purely SUBJECTIVE, in much the same way that writing styles are subjective. If you write a book today with sentences as long and convoluted as you'd find in a John Steinbeck novel, you're going to just end up annoying people, and though you may be a master at what you're doing, it's not what you want to do if you want to sell books. If your word choices jar the reader away from the narrative, chances are, you're not going to be a successful writer, because editors won't want to print your books and people won't want to buy them.

So here' s my dilemma. I recently had a short story sent through "Critters", an online critiquing group. The basic idea is that you write critiques for other people's work, and they'll write some for yours. I was not under the illusion that my work was up to par with today's writing standards, yet I found myself perplexed about the response to some instances of anachronistic dialogue. Some of it I had already wondered about, but here's an example of a critique and what they thought:

(my dialogue)
>..."you've only had your Pa to teach you, and he's respectable, but man... just...
>tell me what your secret is, man."

(his comment)
>The expression "man" is a fairly modern one.
>So it sounds a bit out of place if this is supposed to be medieval.
>Something a little closer would be something like,
>"Pray sir, how have you become so skilled so quickly?"

Can y0u already see where I'm going with this? REALLY? You want me to put that garbage on the page? Now I'm not claiming my use of dialogue is a stroke of genius - in fact, I'll probably have to change it. But "PRAY SIR"? Does that sound like the way ANYONE would talk to people? Now the fact is, he's wrong. His sentence is no closer or farther away than mine to actual medieval language. But the fact is that he's right, because to most people the expression I'm using does sound out of place. It makes them feel like they're not reading a fantasy adventure anymore, and for many fantasy readers, that's just annoying.

Given that there is absolutely no way that I'm going to riddle my narrative with high-and-mighty pseudo-medieval formal babbling, I'm having a dilemma. I need to make my characters come to life in today's language, without using too much of today's language. That's it, I guess. I have not been able to find an intelligent discussion on this topic, but from the critiques I've gotten, opinions vary greatly - plus, everyone has one, and few seem to know why they have it, other than the fact that a certain word or phrase "feels out of place."


CassieU said...

isnt' there a middle ground? Like is there language that is acceptable without portraying an era?...I'm not a writer, but isn't there...common language? (I could be wrong...just wondering.)

Jake said...

That's mostly my point, cas. The standard for what is "acceptable" is purely subjective, based on people's perceptions about what sounds modern or what sounds medieval. It's a choice between writing old-fashioned, mildly Shakespearean sentences that make the narrative sound choppy or pretentious, or finding words that people just aren't going to notice - but people notice phrases that sound modern to them - there's no objective standard behind those choices.