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A Post About Anachronism

Today's post was going to be put up at http://magicalwords.net, but we seem to be having some difficulty with the site right now.  I'll post it there when I can, but for now, here it is:

I’m currently reading Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay is one of my favorite authors, and Ysabel may be his finest work yet. One aspect of the story that makes it so effective is the constant tension between ancient and modern, past and present. The story itself is an anachronism in its modern setting. This is a difficult thing to do, and, of course, Kay does it brilliantly.

Reading the book got me thinking about how we as fantasy authors blend setting and character and plot: a delicate balance that is so elemental in our genre. Specifically, it reminded me that while Kay uses anachronism as a storytelling tool, most authors need to avoid anachronism in all its forms.

What is anachronism?  It’s defined as “a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other.” Basically, for the purposes of this discussion, it’s anything in a story that does not belong, that jars your reader out of setting and narrative and character.

How does it manifest itself in fantasy writing? For the sake of simplicity, I’ll say that the anachronistic mistakes I’ve seen made by beginning writers fall into one of three categories: worldbuilding, language, and dialogue, both internal and external.

In terms of worldbuilding, authors need to be careful that they don’t establish a level of technology for one aspect of their story, and then undermine that decision by establishing a different level of technology for another. For instance, I’ve read stories (excellent in most other ways) that have characters using medieval weaponry, but then taking hot showers. I’ve seen authors write about preindustrial societies that have electricity or steam power. Sorry, folks, but you just can’t do that. Or rather, if you’re really determined to do it, you’d better have a REALLY good explanation for why it makes sense. These types of problems are simple to avoid, but they require some research and some logical thought. One book I’ve found useful is called Ancient Inventions. It’s by Peter James and Nick Thorpe, and it offers some basic discussion of when a wide variety of technological innovations came into use.

Anachronistic language is a bit trickier to deal with, but again care and research can help. The issue here is that most of our writing is done from a certain character’s point of view. This is true even if you’re writing in third person. You are still letting your readers view the world and the story through one person’s eyes (or, if you’re like me, many people’s eyes). These people are limited in what they can know by their experiences and by their cultures. So a medieval knight shouldn’t say that something is “as big as a bus” since he doesn’t know what a bus is. He shouldn’t say that someone is being “paranoid,” because paranoia is a nineteenth century psychological term that he couldn’t possibly know. And unless his world has the same Judeo-Christian traditions and cultural touchstones as ours, he shouldn’t curse by saying, “Oh Hell!” or using the name of Christ. A couple of other sources: for the sake of straight chronology -- knowing when words entered the lexicon -- I use Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition, hardcover) which gives a date for every word, and another book called English Through the Ages, by William Brohaugh. Technically for my books, I shouldn’t use any word that entered the language after, say, 1400. But that gets VERY tricky. I limit myself to words that entered the language before 1600, and even that can be tough. But it keeps my worlds feeling real.

Finally, dialogue. Some of the same points that apply to prose apply to dialogue as well. You don’t want your lead character in a medieval fantasy calling his best friend “Dude” or “Dawg”. But here I tend to fudge a bit, because you also don’t want your characters talking to each other in stilted or obscure language, even if that language is entirely appropriate for a thirteenth century setting. So I have my characters speak using contractions and somewhat colloquial language. I love Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but I find the dialogue tiresome because it is so authentic. In the end, I’ve decided that in the interest of keeping my books flowing and easy to read, I’ll sacrifice this small bit of authenticity.

The issue of anachronism in books is one that I could write about at greater length, but this is at least the beginning of a discussion. As I indicated at the outset in regard to Kay’s book, anachronism can be used as a literary device. But you’d better know what you’re doing before you try it. Otherwise, if you’re trying to build a coherent fantasy world and set your story in it, anachronistic writing is something to be avoided.  You’ve worked hard to submerge your reader in your world; the last thing you want to do is jar him or her out of it.


Oct. 7th, 2008 06:40 pm (UTC)
You are entirely right. It's very important for keeping the mood. John still complains about a certain popular fantasy book where the main characters were drinking milk...as if it could be refrigerated and available in the modern way.

One of the joys of contemporary fiction, of course, is that you get to use the best of everything.
Oct. 8th, 2008 07:31 pm (UTC)
Yeah, while writing my one contemporary fantasy, I did find myself enjoying the freedom of not worrying about these issues. By the same token, finding the right word both historically and in terms of flow can be a fun challenge. Thanks for the comment, Jagi.


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