Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Anachronistic Dialogue in Fantasy

This Friday I wrote a short piece of fantasy flash fiction where a number of commenters raised an interesting issue. They noted that my dialogue pulled them out of the story because it was too modern. But, at the same time we can't be using period authentic dialogue and still get our point across. Now, with fantasy you have a little more leeway because the period the story is based off is a little more ambiguous, but even writers of historical fiction can't be 100% true to the language.

Imagine a historical fiction about the signing of the Magna Carta (assuming they talk in English vs. Latin.) Now you can argue that even the Old English that they would use is a completely different language, but in the end, our modern English is evolved from that, just so that our modern 21st century English is evolved from 17th century English. Not only are the definitions of the words different, but the metaphors will make absolutely no sense to the modern reader. This is probably why even the Canterbury tales (late 1300's and technically Middle English) is published often with the original text and a modern translation along with it.

So, unless you are one of those stubborn purists, I've probably convinced you that dialogue for fantasy and even historical fiction needs to be modernized. But that does not give writers a licence (if they want people to read what they write) to have the dialogue of their fantasy roughly based on the middle ages to include, "Dude, I'm trying to celebrate and chill, but you're harshing my buzz. What's going on?" This is where we now get to the interesting point of this article. We can't take modern dialogue and stick it in the story, but you also can't be authentic. What are you to do?

First, that example ("Dude, I'm trying to celebrate and chill, but you're harshing my buzz. What's going on?") is my rough, modern translation of this line from Chaucer, "What fold been ye, that at myn hom-comynge perturben so my feste with criynge?" Neither works, but we can do better, right?

The first problem with my version (if this was going into a fantasy of historical fiction piece) is obviously the slang. "Dude, chill, and harshing my buzz." We need to take that out and replace it with something perhaps a little more appropriate. How about:

"Sir, I'm trying to celebrate and relax, but your spirit is without cheer. What's going on?"

Now there's an interesting thing here as well. I've got some contractions in there. I'm sure people back in the day used them just as we do today, but there seems to be a prejudice in our media (movies, plays, books, etc.) about the people back in the day speaking in nice, crisp, proper English...without contractions. And especially somebody would would bother addressing anybody as 'sir.' So, taking those out, we have:

"Sir, I am trying to celebrate and relax, but your spirit is without cheer. What is going on?"

I'm still not happy with "What is going on?" and I think there needs to be a better way. It still sounds too modern (even though, as we saw from Chaucer, everything about my sentence is 'modern.'). So what I'm going to do is just take a phrase that, again, would make no sense in the 14th century, and see what happens:

"Sir, I am trying to celebrate and relax, but your spirit is without cheer. Please, tell me what is the matter?"

All I did was take a phrase that is not used all that often and put it in there instead. This and the other things I put in there alert the reader to know that this is definitely not taking place right this day, because just about nobody they encounter on a daily basis talks like that. From there you are free to use the setting to give your reader a more accurate sense of time.

You don't really want to create authentic period dialogue, but instead what you want is transparent dialogue that gets the character voice across and keeps the plot moving forward. Don't use it for creating setting, let your descriptions do that.

So in summary, what I would recommend at this moment would be the following:

1) Get rid of all slang (contemporary or otherwise unless it is native to the period you are working with)

2) Understand that formality and manners can be useful for some characters to highlight that we are not in our modern time period

3) Use uncommon phrases that seemingly transcend time to allow your setting to pin point the time period.

4) Don't use the 'thee, thou, thine' stuff unless you know what you are doing and the rest of your dialogue is going to be very close to authentic. And even the, I feel it takes away from the clarity and becomes less than transparent.

Hopefully my little rant was helpful, and props go to those who pointed out this issue of anachronistic dialogue in my flash. Without you, I never would have sat down to think about this. Thanks.

What do you think? How should dialogue be handled in Fantasy (and Historical Fiction.)


Kelly Stone Gamble September 20, 2011 at 7:37 PM  

Anachronistic dialogue is a huge issue for historical fiction. Luckily for me, I write in a time period that is heavily documented. However, I'll use this example to make this brief: The literacy rate in Medieval times was roughly 20%, and of course, that was concentrated in the higher social classes. So what is written that researchers can analyze for speech is the opinion or interpretation of the literate at the time. In other words, not a lot of slang or cursing is represented. Yet, I'd bet King Arthur's sword that the paupers and the knights cussed like sailors. :) I sure would like to know what they said.

Michael A Tate September 20, 2011 at 7:41 PM  

Very good point, and probably one of many that I left out of my post. (This is a subject one could probably write a whole book on.) But speaking of slang, that book I recently reviewed, "Low Town" was a fantasy that took place in the dark alleys and such, and the author did a fantastic job of coming up with slang that seemed to fit the period.

Great comment Kelly, and thanks.

Ciara Ballintyne September 21, 2011 at 3:46 AM  

No offense to your line of dialogue, but I would never use it in my work, and I do write fantasy. Obviously I wouldn't use 'Dude, I'm trying to chill' either. I think your line is far too formal, unless maybe the character is a bard/minstrel, or possibly a noble. No way would a street-born assassin, for example, use that line - unless she was impersonating said bard/minstrel or noble.

For anyone really wondering about dialogue, I would suggest a dialogue workshop. I did one, and it made me look at dialogue in a totally new way. Before I did that workshop, I didn't really regard dialogue as all that important, but now I look at it with fresh perspective.

Incidentally, overly formal dialogue was considered a big no-no - unless it was relevant to the character.

And for anyone who really wants to know how to treat dialogue in fantasy specifically, I'd recommend reading some of the top fantasy authors to see how they've done it. Most dialogue would not be of the degree of formality of the line you have developed. The Discworld books are an interesting look at how informal and arguably more modern language can be used successfully in a fantasy piece.

As you noted, fantasy does not necessarily denote a particular time period.

Michael A Tate September 21, 2011 at 7:42 AM  

Ciara: Ah, I just realized that I left out the fact that the person saying the dialogue in that particular line of Chaucer was a prince.

I agree with you fully that you don't want to be formal unless it is necessary for a particular character.

I did also leave out another very important issue you brought up. READ good fantasy if you want to learn how to really do good dialogue.

Thanks :)

Icy Sedgwick September 24, 2011 at 10:52 AM  

I can't speak for fantasy, but I write historical fiction so the correct dialogue is obviously important to me. However, when I write my pirate stories, I try very hard to avoid the accepted "pirate talk" since that was invented for use in a play, and pirates would have no doubt simply spoken the same way they did when not on the high seas. Without actually visiting the time period, it's difficult to get it 100% right, but reading novels of the time can help...as can simply using common sense. For example, you can bet your bottom dollar a late nineteenth century Whitechapel prostitute would use slang, but it's less likely that a high-ranking WWI officer would. But basically, there's no substitute for good research!

John Wiswell September 24, 2011 at 2:29 PM  

I'll weigh in. There is a huge difference between Fantasy and Historical Fiction, so much so that I don't think it's constructive to discuss the dialogue of both together. Historical Fiction is always set in a time period where people did actually speak a certain way. Fantasy is typically set in another world where you are inventing how people speak. One has true norms; the other has only the norms you invent. Audiences of both can perceive norms for how people ought to speak, but it's really up to the Fantasy writer. China Mieville's wacky worlds don't require everyone to use prim speech. I presume you were primarily entertaining Fantasy fiction that draws primarily from specific time periods, though even there, I'd think you could develop cultures such that patterns of speech felt indigenous. Most of the best contemporary Fantasy tends to draw up their own worlds rather than remaining feeling like imitations of one time period. Once you give your world its feeling, the dialogue ought to match appropriately. Fantasy writers these days joke about how people once expected it to be all thees-and-thous.

Historical Fiction, though... what a gamble. I'd actually be more attracted to a book that did attempt to nail how people sounded. It's easier (if still wickedly risky) to do this in film, like Mel Gibson tried a few times. But since I'm not a primary consumer of Historical Fiction, courting my curiosity won't help. I'm only certain that writing too informally, like the constantly-cussing vikings of Northlanders, will tick me off.

Damyanti September 26, 2011 at 1:29 AM  

Michael, I learned a lot both from your post and from the comments.

I do not write much fantasy, and have never written Historical, but the points made (both by you and the commenters) are instructive.

Helen September 26, 2011 at 2:37 AM  

I'm not as clever as some here, but I think for me that the dialogue one uses in their writing shouldn't clash with the image that has been created of the time frame.

To write so that one gets the impression say of a medieval era and then throw in modern dialogue just confuses what the reader thinks the time frame is and by modern I mean words like dude and chill etc.

Any way that's my little two pennith for what it's worth.


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