January 30th, 2013, 12:54 AM
Modern words in historical fantasy
So I'm writing my book in third-person limited narrative, and was wondering if it would be off-putting or jarring for the narrator to make use of 'modern words'.
To clarify, some examples of modern words would be: adrenaline, gravity, matter, molecules, galaxy, etc. Concepts that have always existed but weren't coined into words until after the time frame of my story. I find myself missing some of these words if I try not to use them, and discriminate which 'modern words' I allow when I do consider using one. For instance maybe adrenaline isn't very jarring, but molecules just shatters the whole atmosphere. Ultimately it's a judgement call, I guess, but I wondered what opinions you all might have on the issue. Would you be okay with using 'modern words' as the third-person limited narrator in a historical fantasy/fiction? Would you be okay with seeing them used by the narrator in a historical fantasy/fiction?
January 30th, 2013, 06:08 AM
For me, I ask myself a few questions when I come to an 'off-putting' word.
1. Is it a word this world would have? In other words, is the word too ethnic or unique to our world? I doubt our characters will be eating Ma-Po Tofu(They would probably call it something else). For me, even a word like 'barrista' is jarring because it conjures up feelings and ideas from our world.
2. Is it a word the society would know of? If they're medieval era, they either wouldn't have a concept of molecules or it would be a different concept from ours. On this point, I usually will check when different societies in our world had the concept. Just follow that example.
3. Does the character know the term or concept? The scientists of your world may understand adrenaline, but does your pov characters?
January 30th, 2013, 07:17 AM
Speaks fluent Bawehrf
You're talking about anachronisms.
Similar thread from January, and a very relevant one from last August. I would avoid any technical and scientific jargon, because they imply the people of your world know about concepts like gravity, chemical structure and so on.
I suppose it depends how far back your 'historical' aspect goes - if it's like the mid to late 1800's, you could get away with most things familiar to readers - for instance, Sherlock Holmes would be fine talking about the concept of adrenaline though perhaps not by name (it was discovered around 1900), but Brother Cadfael wouldn't. The concept of everything being made of indivisible, tiny things like atoms has been around for a long time, but knowing about molecular structure is a much more recent phenomenon.
You just have to review your descriptions. For instance, there is never a dire need for you to write 'Grunt the Barbarian felt a surge of adrenaline through his veins as the axe plunged through the goblin's skull' - you'd do something like 'Grunt's blood raced through his mighty veins as the axe...'. Likewise, you'd never have a medieval-setting wizard talk about gravity and molecules, UNLESS you were showing that he had knowledge from the future, because those words are specific to forces we know and recognise from our world. I don't think this is a judgement call at all - you've got to be careful you don't break the spell.
Case in point: I'm currently reading Theft Of Swords, a good old fashioned fantasy romp set in standard medieval swords-and-sorcery olde-worlde Europe familiar to everyone and their dog. And yet we have a courtly prince and princess with dialogue like this:
"I was going to tell you tonight. Although, I thought you'd take it better. I figured you'd like it."
"Like it? Like it! Oh yeah, I love the idea of being used as a political pawn."
As well as the use of 'figured you'd like it' and 'yeah', modern Americanisms, the 'pawn' implies knowledge of chess, a game specific to our world. You have to tread very, very lightly so as not to wake the reader from the illusion.
Last edited by zachariah; January 30th, 2013 at 07:22 AM.
January 30th, 2013, 11:42 AM
I think you're right, it wouldn't be worth it to confuse the reader when there are alternatives that could accomplish whatever I'm hoping for just as well. I was entertaining the notion that the narrator may be allowed to have knowledge of 'modern words' without them being implicit knowledge of the characters as well, which is wishful thinking.
Originally Posted by zachariah
The pawn thing could have easily gotten me as well. My story takes place in 12th century Mediterranean/Middle East, so I probably wouldn't bring up chess intentionally, but I can see myself missing the connection with pawn. So you're right, I'll have to be very careful when writing and revising. I can't think of any excuses for 'yeah' and 'figured you'd like it', but I'm sure there are many other fantasy novels with modern jargon and phrases like that. I like to think the book Eragon is to blame, I understand that it is full of anachronisms despite it's popularity.
Originally Posted by zachariah
Thanks for the replies, guys!
January 30th, 2013, 02:46 PM
It's true that the words you are bringing up as examples weren't in use or weren't in use in their exact forms in the 1100's. But almost all of them were by the 1300's. A lot of the words we think are modern are not. There were forms of chess in very early Arabia and pawn meant a foot soldier, which is why it was used in chess. If you wanted to use galaxy, you could use the ancient Greek form galaxius, which might be kind of fun. The reality is that if you really wanted to avoid anachronisms in the language, you'd write like Chaucer. So if there's a word you want to use, research its origins and see when it was developed and what previous forms from earlier there were. You may find that there are very few words you can't actually use with historical accuracy, but perhaps not in the original 1100's form because the word "you" was pretty different back then too. This site might help:
January 30th, 2013, 03:39 PM
If I had to write in Old English, I'd have to abandon any illusions of maintaining historical accuracy, because I couldn't do that. But there will be very very little use of the English language (by the characters) in my book, if any at all. Would it then be acceptable to use modern English terms when the character is speaking in Arabic, Italian, French, or some other language in which there may be comparable words that had already been coined by the 12th century? "You" would be one very basic example of this, but also the other terms like adrenaline and gravity. Maybe there are Arabic parallels?
January 30th, 2013, 04:37 PM
I'm quite confused.
Originally Posted by Grey
January 30th, 2013, 07:13 PM
As a writer, I try to avoid words that show an attitude or world view that the character in question wouldn't have ... given who they are, where they are, and when they are.
Words reflect our thoughts but they also shape them, so when I am reading a book and I feel that the dialogue doesn't fit the shape of the time, culture, and world view that goes with the setting, it can spoil the whole experience. Not always. Some writers are clever enough to get away with it, but more often than not I stop believing in the characters, and it's hard (if not impossible) to care about them after that.
Last edited by Teresa Edgerton; January 30th, 2013 at 07:16 PM.
January 30th, 2013, 09:32 PM
I didn't explain it very well. If there was already an Arabic word effectively meaning "adrenaline" at the time my story takes place, would it then be okay to use "adrenaline" when the character speaking is speaking Arabic? As I re-examine the question now, I'm inclined to think that any use of the word would throw the readers off since they wouldn't make the connection that I'm translating the 12th century Arabic speech of the character into modern English, and why should they? So I'll just throw those questionable words out and look for substitutes that fit. Still, I can't write in Old English. I think it would throw the audience off more if I used "thou" and "ye" every time a character says "you".
Originally Posted by Cononomous
January 30th, 2013, 09:44 PM
I'm keeping the third-person limited narrator totally objective. The only time the narrator will use subjective language is when describing thoughts of the protagonist. Like you say though, words that don't fit the time and culture (though they probably wouldn't be used in dialogue), could be very disruptive, so I'll refrain from using them. Just out of curiosity though, if you were reading a story set in the 12th century, and the narrator used a term like "density" would that be just as off-putting? Sometimes these words would be sorely missed because there is no concise way to describe them in 12th century language. For instance if I want to use a word like "reflection" to describe a reflection, it would be hard to do it without just using the word. Even "mirror" wouldn't have been a word available at the time period.
Originally Posted by Teresa Edgerton
If I am very strict with my censorship of modern terms (or at least terms more modern than 12th century), my vocabulary would be very limited.
January 31st, 2013, 02:58 AM
You couldn't use gravity or adrenaline because those were definitely not in use. Gravity showed up in the 1600's, though the other meaning of gravity -- seriousness -- was around much earlier. Adrenaline and the adrenal gland were not in real use until the 1800's and 1901. But for instance, for chess: "The original word for "chess" is Sanskrit chaturanga "four members of an army" -- elephants, horses, chariots, foot soldiers. This is preserved in Spanish ajedrez, from Arabic (al) shat-ranj, from Persian chatrang, from the Sanskrit word." And chess itself came into use in the 1200's from the French echecs, so that one you could play around with. If you have a word you want to use, then you can look up the history of it and see if it would fit. You can also see what the word is for the same thing in Arabic, French, etc. and maybe use that word instead.
Originally Posted by Grey