Sunday, April 19, 2015

"Anachronisms" in Fantasy - Keeping It Real

My mom sent me these gorgeous flowers last week to celebrate that THE TALON OF THE HAWK, book 3 in The Twelve Kingdoms series, received  Top Pick from RT Book Reviews. That makes two Top Picks and a Top Pick GOLD for this trilogy, which is just...I can't even express how validating this is. They said:

“The saga of The Twelve Kingdoms returns in grand style! It takes a great deal of trust for Ursula to accept that Harlan is interested in her as a woman; his position as a mercenary means he’s skilled at playing courtly games. She’s always possessed a physical strength, so it’s beautiful to watch her accept her own personal power, as a woman and as a daughter of Salena, even when her stubbornness gives you fits. Harlan is her perfect match because his talent at observation allows him to see beyond the tough warrior image she employs to avoid showing her feelings. This is a complex world full of danger, subterfuge and secrets with empowering female characters who are not afraid to fight for their future.”– RT Book Reviews, 4.5 Stars Top Pick
It's so wonderful when someone GETS exactly what you're trying to do with a book. Especially when not everyone does. I'm writing in this odd cross-section of fantasy and romance. It makes me happy and it's exactly where I want to be, but I sometimes run afoul of the genre expectations of both sides of the fence.

But mainly from the fantasy folks.

Because, let me tell you: the sci fi/fantasy (SFF) folks have RULES. It surprises me less coming from the sci fi contingent. A lot of those readers and writers are also scientists and engineers. I've spent much of my life working with both and I know the mindsets. Very much about linearity and sticking precisely - even pedantically - to the rules.

I'm just so not a rules kind of gal.

Really, it's not that I can't. It's that I don't want to. An attitude the pedants don't care for at all. So, you know, I get what I gets.

Which is criticism for using anachronistic language in my fantasy romances. I've seen less enthused reviews for this series calling out phrases like "national security" and "fan club" as anachronistic. Um, okay. Because, this is MY fantasy world, right? I'm careful not to use tech-related metaphors in my non-tech world. No electric shocks or going off like bombs. But how can those phrases be anachronistic when they're drawn from basic words that WOULD have meaning in that world?

It is apropos, however, of this week's topic Realism in SFF: trying to maintain the suspension of disbelief. The argument, I suppose, would be that these phrases are ones that readers attach with modern, popular culture and they thus feel jerked out of the alternate world, losing that lovely suspension of disbelief. It could also be argued that this is a voice thing. I *like* tossing in more current language, to mix things up. But then, I also believe in adopting the slang and alternative usages in our ever-evolving language, where I know many people believe in clinging to some kind of "pure" concept of what is and is not correct.

(Frankly I fall in with those who feel the concept of correct or pure English is a fallacy. Languages by their nature evolve with use, changing to fit the needs of the speakers and listeners. English, in particular, partly because it's the language of technology which is changing at a rapid rate.)

The suspension of disbelief is important, but what is "real"? The word "club" goes back to the 1600s. "Fan" goes back to the 1800s and is a shortening of "fanatic," which goes back to the 1500s. Put together, the phrase dates back to 1930. "National" and "security" are likewise words from the 1500s, put together sometime in the early 1900s. I could see that, okay, those are usages that came into play after the Industrial Revolution.

But, at what point do I draw historical line? After all, in Chaucer's day, "nice" meant "stupid" - not at all how we use it today. When Norman Mailer coined the term "factoid," he very deliberately meant it to convey a fabricated statement. Now our government websites use it to mean a small fact. An irony lost on many.

I think one could go crazy, trying to parse all of this. And is it worth it? Suspending disbelief for the reader: Yes. Totally worth it. Appeasing those who hold to what seems to me to be an arbitrary set of rules? Eh. Yes, Tolkein wrote great fantasy. I read them all, even THE SILMARILLION. But I don't think that this is some sort of academic standard to which we all must adhere. Language changes. Genre changes. If we don't play with the rules, how can we be creative?

What do you all think - am I crazy here?


  1. In all speculative fiction (for me) once the writer has set rules for their story/world they need to stick to them. And if the rules change then there better be a good explanation as to why. I just read a new comic book called The Forge. It is basically about a young George Washington fighting zombies, but all the dialogue is modern. It was weird seeing characters living in the 1700s talking like 2015 characters, but it worked because this is issue #1 and this is how they talk. That is the rule. George likes to cuss by the way
    I love your last statement "If we don't play with the rules, how can we be creative?" well said!

    1. That sounds very fun, Sharon! And you have a great point - whatever worldbuilding rules we set for ourselves, we need to stick with those. I imagine there are plenty of purists out there who'd object to a cussing George Washington fighting zombies, too. :-)

  2. I remember I had a discussion with a girl who read one of my Fantasy stories. She argued that I couldn't call dragons 'dragons', because in the middle ages they did not use the word dragon, but the word worm...
    I'm not sure if she was right, but if I read a story where people get scared because they see a worm approaching... Not the same impact as dragon.
    Sometimes we need anachronism to get the right meaning across to readers.

    1. That's an excellent point, Sullivan! We are, after all, writing for people of our own era. Only so much we can do and still be understood!