1. Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us.

A limitation in Fantasy fiction

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by skip.knox, Apr 8, 2017.

  1. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I'm reading another volume in O'Brian's historical series about Captain Jack Aubrey. He is a masterful writer and here's an example. A new admiral has taken command of the fleet and meets with his officers. O'Brian describes him listening stone-faced, giving nothing away, patient, "... a man thoroughly used to committees."

    Now, that's a wonderfully compact phrase. Alas, it is just the sort of phrase we who write epic fantasy (and its many cousins) cannot use precisely because of its strength. The phrase depends on us having certain preconceptions about committees and so is very much of this world and is rather modern. Used in an epic fantasy, it pulls the reader right out of the moment.

    I've encountered this many times. Much of what makes the prose of, say, Raymond Chandler so marvelous is its deep connections with 20thc sensibilities. Many times I've had a scene detail or a bit of dialog that would be so much better if I could just use a modern turn. One that we have mentioned here in Scribes is the use of "fire an arrow" versus "loose an arrow."

    It just struck me today (the idea, not the arrow) that people often talk about how fantasy writers have so much freedom--we can create whole worlds, and have the people in them behave as we please. This is true, but the cruel fact is, the vocabulary available to us to describe that world is modern, and the further we deviate from that--whether through made-up words or through anachronistic phrasing--the more we risk losing our readers.

    Boo hoo. Poor us. :)
  2. Seira

    Seira Minstrel

    I had this realization a while ago.
    I'm writing in English both text and dialogue. But my characters would be speaking in their native language, which I can't write in through dialogue because no one would understand it. So how do I let my readers know they are speaking in another language? how do I tell them what it sounds like? I can't use any common phrases like 'they spoke in an unknown language' or 'in a language I didn't understand'. Because my character does know the language.

    It's hard to create names as well. Especially when you're not a language expert.
  3. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

    You could use a different symbol than quotation marks to set off their dialogue (I do this a fair bit with deaf characters who use sign language), or simply note that "they switched to X language when they spoke next".
    Seira likes this.
  4. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

    Excellent point Skip. I'm painfully aware of this problem. There is a certain freedom in writing fantasy, to be sure. But writing something contemporary, or that takes place in the 'real' world, a whole universe of references packed with meaning are at the author's disposal, and that's a powerful arsenal.

    I tend to identify the problem this way. Look at these two place names:

    New York City


    The first is known by just about everyone and has thousands of associations built right in.

    The second is a name of a city in my fantasy world that puts exactly zero associations in a reader's head. Encountered for the first time, it is nothing more than a name.

    That is a HUGE deficit and difficult to make up for. Poor us, indeed. I think I'm going to cry now--
  5. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Ayup, don't even wanna say "okay" LOL. There's a huge variety of words that get thrown right out the window writing epic fantasy fiction, but at the same time, we get to bring back old words that modern works shouldn't really contain.
  6. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    One way to look at it could be that there's a lot of freedom in telling fantasy stories, but there are plenty of technical limitations when it comes to the writing.
    Seira likes this.
  7. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Yeah for sure. In fantasy, it's generally pretty difficult, if not impossible, to exploit the cultural baggage that goes along with certain words and phrases.

    But to me, it's also an opportunity to create those things for your own world, or to find equivalencies that make sense within context but contain the same meaning. It's an opportunity to stretch your writing muscles.

    Lets look at the example given.

    Remember, though the setting changes, the reader doesn't. You can still try to exploit the modern baggage associated with committees by translating that into the fantasy world and have the reader make the connection. It definitely wouldn't be as compact and would probably require a little set up, but it could be done.

    Depending on context, one could do something like ... a man thoroughly used to sitting in council, where coin counters and ministers drone on about tax counts and polices of kingdom, about who should be responsible for clearing the streets of horse droppings, and what color the carts and shovels used should be.
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Deftly done, Penpilot.
  9. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    Hm...no. We only risk losing our readers if we do not provide them with a fulfilling reading experience. Modern language is the way to communicate with our modern readers, even if we write fantasy. So needing to change up the way we narrate (language) is just another element of writing fantasy fiction. However, I've come across many a good fantasy novel with modern dialogue and narrative and I still enjoyed them. :)
  10. This is a sliding scale that can only be taken so far. Modern language includes modern words. How far would we take it? Would we avoid using the word "input" in a fantasy novel because of its origins with computers? I've seen fantasy writers reference scientific concepts (like evolution) that their characters wouldn't be familiar with given the level of scientific advancement, or talk about hypothermia, showing medical knowledge beyond the level of advancement in their world...Or using the term "okay." There are lots of words as new as that one that we use regularly, even in fantasy novels.

    We can't really get away from the fact that we speak modern language, and we have to use language our readers speak and use to communicate our stories, because we live in the modern age.

    Last time I read the Narnia books I thought it was funny that all the characters talk like British people from the 50's despite being in a fantasy world. That was when I realized that no matter what you do, the language you use is confined to your own time and place to a degree.

    I mean, if we couldn't use any word with a modern origin we'd have to write in freaking Old English or something.
  11. staiger95

    staiger95 Scribe

    Writing is always going to be a balance between limitations and freedoms, and ultimately it is our job—our responsibility—as an author to use the language we have at our disposal to create a mental framework into which the reader willingly immerses his- or herself. Our choices of words and phrases are about creating ambiance, so we must select them thoughtfully to achieve the desired result. Nothing boils my blood more than having well-described characters in a vivid fantasy setting engaged in a dialogue that sounds like two high school teens at the mall. I think it should always come down to atmosphere, and if the words detract or disengage from the atmosphere, then it is the author's fault for doing so.

    The fact that we have humans in a fantasy world, or a yellow sun and a white moon for that matter, or that they speak fluent English apparently (or whatever native language in which the author is writing), are simply conventions that enable us authors to ground the readers into the story we wish to tell without having to explain every detail of the universe. Our word and dialogue choices become a shifting balance between the familiar and the fantastical, all with the goal of engagement.

    A passage I wrote in one of my stories, bends the rules perhaps, but (hopefully) achieves the desired result:

    I figure if humans can exist in my fantasy world, then some Valkyrie-like mythos is just as possible. Using one made-up word in context carries all the same connotation without having to break off into a superfluous depiction of who or what vaikyrae are, because it is not that significant to the story.

    So yes, fantasy writers have limitations, but no more so than any other genre that is defined by the setting and atmosphere in which the story takes place. The detective in a suspense novel might not have a crystal ball or a magic sword, but she has an iphone and a gun at her disposal, so its all good. Just don't break the illusion, and I, as a reader, am willing to suspend disbelief as long as necessary.
    Michael K. Eidson likes this.
  12. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

    Well, I will say that when reading a fantasy piece that is supposed to be of a certain type of earlier time period, the modern references do take me out of the story. Perhaps the writing in them was poor already and so I noticed more. For myself, I try not to use words that would not be from period in describing things, or really from the outside of the POV characters experience. For example, a farm hand might know something is white as milk, but not say white as a polar bear if they don't know what a polar bear is. And so, while I might be free to make the reference as a writer, I would avoid it because the character does not.

    When I was younger, I tended to put things meant to be foreign language in italics as a way to show it was being translated from a different language by a character who would know what they were saying. Now I just make a notation.

    "That bear is white a milk," the man said his native tongue.

    "Its a polar bear," I replied back in my own.

    Anyway, different strokes... I think more important is to have a method is stick to it. The reader will adapt if they are enjoying the story.
    Simpson17866, FifthView and Ban like this.
  13. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    "That creature is white as milk," the man said his native tongue.

    "It's a polar bear," I replied back in my own.

    "A polar what?"

    I just looked at him, stumped. How had he understood me? ​

    Heh. But I agree with your other points. I can easily be thrown out of a fantasy novel when I encounter modern language and sensibilities, unless it's a comedy or set in our own world.

    More than that, I'm actually offended, sometimes. I feel that the writer simply doesn't care and will take the easy route, darn it. And I don't always buy the whole Translation Excuse. But then not all translation is like all other translation, and not every case is equally bad.
    Last edited: Apr 12, 2017
  14. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

    And while they were both working out their various language difficulties, they were both eaten by a large white creature.

    Yeah, offended might too strong a term for what I feel, but I do think less of the work. Last one I noted it in was Sword of Shannara, which I sort of recently read, and had lots of errors I would chalk up to beginner writing. I know I was late to read that one, but I don't think I will continue with anything past it.
  15. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    This is one of those murky areas where you're looking at the boundaries between character voice, narrative voice, and author voice.

    Depending on what I'm writing, and how deep I intend the character voice to be, a sentence like this might be fine:

    Asgurn fired his arrow through the rope the man hung from, shredding the hemp like logic in a committee meeting.

    There's nothing wrong with that sentence because it's the narrator describing something for the reader. The problem is when you have a strong character voice:

    Asgurn could feel the tension in his back and legs as he knocked the arrow and pulled back the sinew, refusing to feel nerves in the fingers that held his brother's fate in his hand. He loosed the arrow and held his breath as it shredded the rope and his brother fell, for a second to his knees before he slumped over to the ground, motionless and silent, like the world around Asgurn as he prayed for his brother's life.

    There's no room in there for modern language, random metaphors, or anything but what the character is experiencing in the moment. Note not just the use of loosed instead of fired, but of sinew instead bowstring. Fired and bowstring might be okay, but the higher context sinew and loosed have way more power.

    There might be room for both types of voice in the same narrative, depending on your style, the tone, and the moment. I recently wrote a conversation from one character's deep POV, and whenever the other character said something I used an out of character metaphor to describe it, because there was no other way to convey to a reader the wild emotions that non-POV character was feeling through the MCs direct thoughts and observations.

    Here's one quote of mine from that scene:

    . . . she squealed, and then her hands ran up to grab her face, as if she could pull her voice back down to normal through a lever in her cheekbones.

    In this case, the tension in the other character was just too over the head of the MC that I had to use a different, neutral voice to describe it. The key words of doing so in this quote: as if. And it goes unnoticed. If you read through the scene, you most likely would think it kept to a deep POV even though there are at least three of these out of POV statements.

    So I'm going to emphasize that these things matter a ton for character voice, but in a whole-narrative-view, you always have a great deal of wiggle room to develop your own style and the needs of the scene.

    Kind of an aside, but when I have too many "too exotic" names that I have to use, I mix a bunch of them with English. I use Towering Tianlieu, for instance, like both words are part of the name (I mean, "New" is a word in a way that "York" isn't, right?). That way you don't have to remember the weird part to remember it.
    Last edited: Apr 12, 2017
    Simpson17866 likes this.
  16. RedAngel

    RedAngel Minstrel

    I have a couple of languages in my novel and I have tried to use different fantasy means to make it accessible to the reader.

    1: The use of magic to allow a character to instantly understand the language until it wears off or the need to know it is over.

    2: The language is being used to show that some other information is being said that the MC does not understand himself. If say you come across people speaking a different language often times there are english words strewn in that you can have a very generic idea of what is being said.

    3: Having another character respond next in the dialog in english to give either the translation directly or to make a passing comment or question that then gives the reader the intended information.

    4: If using harder to read older dialects I will have my MC point out that it is hard to listen to and to talk in "common tongue".

    Honestly there are people out there that absolutely love fantasy languages if they are full fledged languages. Look at the Dothraki language from game of thrones or the Klingon language. To those people it adds immersion.

    But to others it is distracting and a waste of a sentence. I think it just depends on what you use and how you use it that counts.

    In the example used in this thread of the fleet commander attending the committee meeting. They might be extremely well educated and that is just how they talk. Maybe not all of them talk in an educated tone and others hate when they talk like that and show it. Maybe it creates tension with the individual ship crews as they feel like the captain is better then them for it with their big fancy words. With a clear defined class system in place you could find a happy medium of the way people speak that any reader could get behind.

    Mostly it comes down to either going with it and making it work or not having it in at all. It sure is tricky but it could also be quite rewarding. If you do decide to use other languages or dialects or older forms of the english language just have your characters react to it as you would if you encounter someone speaking that way in the context of the scene.
    Simpson17866 likes this.
  17. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Yeah, it was probably too strong a term, at least for describing examples in a universal way. I had in mind a certain type, where the author writes in a modern idiom with seemingly little attention given to what that idiom does. For instance, using the term "bandwagon" as in, "That fool Charmis spoke so often about the need to invade Falmia—a barbaric land filled with men and women who thought nothing of cooking and eating children, he said—that pretty soon many lords and ladies had jumped on the bandwagon."

    Certain turns of phrase, certain idioms come so naturally to us, we can occasionally lose track of them. I was reading a preview on Amazon, or maybe it was some book I'd foolishly downloaded onto my Kindle before reading the preview, in which "freak" was used as a verb: "So-and-so began freaking out."

    Yeah, right. That's perfectly fine in some genres, but in others it raises my hackles.
    Demesnedenoir likes this.
  18. The Dark One

    The Dark One Archmage

    Just happened upon this thread...

    The limitation is not just for fantasy, it's for any anachronistic story. I published a historical novel set in the C11 and had to do heaps of research to see whether concepts or references could be used, including: miasma, chess, alchemy, certain swear words... In just about the last edit I realised I'd referred to a pumpkin, which was unknown in Europe for the best part of another 500 years.
    joshua mcdermott likes this.
  19. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    Didn't realize this was a necro, but I'm going to do it, anyway...

    This is how we handle language shifts in dialogue. Our characters are speaking in both English and Faerie Gaelic, which is noted in italics.

    Parvati gave Cian a sexy, predatory smile. “Probably shouldn’t change in the driveway… but yes, let’s have a fashion show and check my measurements.”

    Cian returned her smile, and Etienne stiffened slightly. The young prince pulled a pair of leaf green pants, a barely green shirt, and a jacket the green of a verdant forest. “I assume the green is for me?”

    “Oh yes. I don’t think it’s possible to forget those eyes of yours.”

    He dropped his gaze for a moment, peering up through his long red-gold lashes, clearly flirting, and then turned to find somewhere in the crowded House to change.

    Jaw tight, Etienne grabbed the first items in brown and red to come to hand, tried to not give the tigress an unfriendly look, and went into the House after Cian. He caught up to Cian at the door to the downstairs bath and snagged him by the arm, feeling his defined, young muscles tense in his hand. “What the hell was that all about?” Etienne said in Faerie Gaelic, so low his voice came out in a growl.

    Cian frowned and pulled his arm free. “What was what about? Me flirting with Parvati? I like flirting, and you don’t usually care.”

    “With Winter. I don’t mind you flirting with Winter.” He didn’t mind Cian doing anything with Winter. Didn’t mind their tender explorations of each other. He wanted to do it, too. He just couldn’t seem to bring himself to cross that divide.

    Cian pushed the bathroom door open and went inside. “Isn’t that the whole point of this exercise? Me flirting? You want me to keep Anluan’s attention, don’t you? It’s going to take some flirting.”

    Etienne remained in the hallway. “It is, but you don’t need to flirt with the tigress. She’ll take it the wrong way, and then what will you do?”

    Cian glanced in the direction of the circle drive and shrugged. “I’ll figure it out. I need to know that I can do it before we go.”

    “What, flirt? Of course, you can flirt. You flirt with Winter all the time.”

    “I flirt with you all the time, for years, and I get no response. I don’t know if I’m doing it right.”

    Etienne’s breath stopped for a moment. Of course, Cian was doing it right. He was a spring faerie. Flirting was in his lifeblood. His hand rose for a moment to catch Cian by the back of his neck, to press their foreheads together, but he made a fist and pulled it back.

    Cian watched his hand, watched him pull away. Again. And his beautiful green eyes blurred for a moment with tears. Then he rose to his full, considerable height, slender shoulders straight, anger trembling along his delicate jaw. “I’ll flirt with whoever I bloody well please. It’s none of your business, Etienne Knight. You won’t make it your business.” And he shut the bathroom door with a sharp click.

    Etienne pressed his forehead to the door for a moment, not caring in that instant who might see, and then went upstairs to find his room.
    Malik likes this.
  20. Joe jj Burns

    Joe jj Burns New Member

    Our characters are speaking in both English and Faerie Gaelic, which is noted in italics.
    That's a great point but when to use italics must be consider
    because tons of people are suffering from this though and because of their lack of content...

Share This Page