Friday, 11 December 2009

Language In Fantasy



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?

22 comments:

Toni said...

Not sure if it's a 'book in the right direction' but I'm reading The Mafia - the first 100 years' and it talks a lot about NYC Mafia as well as Al Capone - it has quite a bit of 'first person' dialect. x

liliannattel said...

Swearing is interesting--but casting sexual aspersions is pretty universal around cultures and time periods. I think that when the 3rd person narrative supports the time period it creates a stronger underlying sense that permeates the writing. What an interesting post. Thanks!

Melissa B. said...

Thanks for sharing this...you're right on the mark. And I wanted to thank you soooooooo much for stopping by on my Special SITS Day. It's taken me a while to get back, but I hope to see you around the blogosphere again soon!

The Sun Also Rises

Chef E said...

Funny, but when I read your post I hear your english voice, same with my other writer friends, if they are spanish I hear their voice...who am I? LOL

Joanna M said...

What's your reasoning behind giving your characters English-type names? Reading 'Eleanor' jarred with me at first - is the idea that her 'actual' name is a name that means what 'eleanor' means in the Charanthe language? Whereas reading 'Laban' seemed much more natural. Just a thought!

Sam said...

Your mention of language in historical fiction made me wonder if you want to do my research I can properly communicate in the Biblical fiction I have been writing.

Midday Escapades said...

Sorry no good books to suggest right now. I need to start reading the Thirsty book I just won.

Happy SITS Saturday Sharefest!! Here's my Sharefest link to my Follow post: http://bit.ly/5hre0m

A Cuban In London said...

You've raised a very serious issue. As an amateur, unpublished (and by the look of it, forever unpublished :-D) writer, I am always at a loss when it comes to language. Should I give my characters a more modern approach? What if I use a dialect, should I have to justify it? Thanks for such a well-written, witty post.

I am from downtown Havana, in the heart of the capital. And I also drove around the island last Feb. Compared with the UK, the motorway is flatter and there my journey was not as enjoyable as it should have been. We went from Havana to Trinidad and I had to stop a few times because of leg cramps.

Glad you enjoyed your stay in Cuba.

Greetings from London.

Daphne said...

Interesting post... I totally agree, while also keeping in mind that some fantasy writers use current language to great effect, eg. Charles de Lint. (his books are not set in Medieval times so that works in his favor)...

Dave King said...

Fascinating post. Food for thought.

Jen said...

I don't know why, but I'm a fan of the time travel books that have the main character traveling between the centuries. It does make it more believable when the author changes the language accordingly. If I'd tried to write historical fiction, I might never have thought of that.

Thanks for visiting my blog!

phd in yogurtry said...

I think I much prefer your style - the narrative voice is in sync with the dialog. It allows the reader to sink in and stay immersed in the time period.

Kimberly said...

I love historical fiction. I even like more so when there is fact and fantasy mixed.

When I read I can hear the accent of the area.

Loved the post!

Dedene said...

Interesting post. Why not create a whole new language like Tolkein did? Wouldn't that be fun?

christine said...

A very thought-provoking blog - and that's the sort of provokation I enjoy:)

Don't some dictionaries (maybe the OED on-line)give archaic meanings to words, so you might discover that "to galvanise" originally meant something totally unrelated to a treatment for metal ... or, then agian, it might not. But if it had an earlier meaning that suited your paragraph, how fantastic would that be? Same for any other noun/verb/adjective etc. Happy hunting xx

Ronnica said...

Ooh, thanks for paying attention to this. I just finished reading Stephen King, and famous as he is, he seems to not care a bit about word choice. I'm not even sure ANYONE read it before it was printed (or at least there doesn't seem to be any care by the early readers to correct his word choice). I'm the kind of person who thinks that there is only ONE right word, and it's the author's struggle to find that very right one.

cjschlottman said...

Such a thoughtful and interesting post. Word choices. We make them every day, every time we speak, and certainly when we write things down. I read this post twice, perhaps because it spoke so personally to me. Thanks.

Oh, I can be found at www://theredsweater.blogspot.com, and it has links to my two others.

ScoMan said...

I'd never thought about the language that closely, but I think you've opened my eyes and I'll be watching for it in the future.

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

I don't write fiction, but I often write essays or letters (even a book, once) as a ghost-writer for people as diverse as a professional baseball player now in his 80s and a college president who's a Dickens scholar. Word choice, cadence, tone, it all works together to make something believable--or not! Good luck with your work, and congrats on being the WOW BON.

Hezabelle said...

So interesting to think about. I'm definitely guilty of using anachronistic terms in my fantasy writing. I'll have to work on that.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

How do you like RAHAN?

That Cro-Magnon hero goes westward from tribe to tribe, even crossing a big sea on a raft, on a quest for the "nest of the sun" (tannière du soleil"), and he never encounters any linguistic problems.

Every one speaks same language as he, nobody has invented persopnal pronouns, where people are not blond he goes by the name "Hair of fire" until he introduces himself by saying RAHAN in first place where we would use "I" or "my" or "me" ... does it sound credible?

PS: I also came for business, since you do bookbinding, you may be amateur publisher for my blogs, see conditions on the first index page to main blog. Unless you find me too religious for your taste of course.

If there is some disinterested like for bookbinding, do spread the word, will you?

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

Sorry for errors, I have fever, that is how I came up with getting this on to bloggers who are also bookbinders.

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