Friday, 11 December 2009
The issue of language in fantasy fiction is always a thorny one - which, for me, makes it interesting.
We can suspend our disbelief for just about long enough to accept that characters may be chatting happily in English (I think of it as translation, in the same way as the whole book may one day be translated into French or Chinese...), but there are certain things that will get in the way of believing in the world and the characters.
Essentially, it boils down to not wanting to use any language which will break the reader's concentration. If it's incongruous, if it stands out, if the reader notices the English language at all, then there's probably something wrong.
I don't shy away from using slang and informal language, but I rule out anything that's culturally grounded in this world. And as most of the fantasy settings I create tend to have an approximately Medieval level of technology, 'modern' concepts and phrases are out.
To take my Charanthe series as an example, they don't have clocks (so I don't use expressions like "wait a minute" or "just a second"), and religion has been outlawed for several generations (so no "Oh God!" or "damn"). The religious constraint makes swearing, in particular, very hard. Actually, swearing is hard anyway, because what's taboo versus acceptable is so very, very dependent on culture.
I've come across some extreme examples in my own writing/editing. I've found it very hard to find a replacement word for 'adrenaline' - which I wanted to edit out on the grounds that it's a chemical that they wouldn't know about. I've ended up rewriting whole paragraphs to make that one disappear. Another fairly obscure one is 'galvanize' - is it okay to have a person be (metaphorically) galvanized when the metal treatment in question hasn't been invented? My internal jury is out on this one. (I even had doubts about 'insurance'........ but I decided that was a step too far, and besides, I'll never catch them all.)
One big question is whether these "rules" should apply to only the dialogue and thoughts of the characters, or also to the narrative voice. (Not an issue if you're writing in first person, of course.) I tend to apply them across the board, but I think it's a very personal decision. I'm aware that I'm making my life a lot harder.
Language in historical fiction will be a post for another day... it feels even more important to get it right if there's a real historical context. That's one of the big things holding me back on my historical thriller, at the moment; I need to research language in 1920s Chicago. Anyone know any good books?