General Writing

Connotations in Fantasy

For me, nothing kills the mood of a fantasy faster than modern language. I don’t expect writers to use Old or Middle English, still less what used to be called “speaking forsoothl” in the Society for Creative Anachronism — an imaginary dialect cobbled together from swashbuckling books and movies that no one every actually spoke and does ungrammatical things like adding “est” at the end of every word. I understand, too, that just because the culture in a story is medieval, it doesn’t have an exact copy of the actual Middle Ages. However, nothing is more jarring that modern phrases that carry a whole set of associations that are dependent on our culture.

Let me give you some examples I recently found. I won’t mention the title or the author, because it’s a first publication, and my point is not to shame anyone. Still, here are five example from the first fifty pages:

  • “estimated time of arrival:” An obsession with time and time-tables is no more than a couple of centuries old. It began with the regular running of coaches and later of trains and airplanes. A culture at any less advanced technological stage would have no interest in the implied concern with exact time.
  • “maximum potential”: This is the language of self-help, which is no more than a century old at best. Probably the closest most past eras would have to this concept is the idea of living a godly life and being concerned with charity.
  • “a feeling of weightlessness:” This phrase only makes sense if you understand that mass and weight are two different things in certain circumstances. Seventy years of space flight makes that concept familiar to most people today, but people of the past would know nothing of the theory. At most, they might notice that they felt lighter when submerged in water.
  • “toxic”: We talk all the time about people being psychologically toxic. However, that usage is no more than a couple of decades old.
  • “doing the math”: High school blurs the distinction between mathematics and arithmetic. However, that distinction would not have existed more than a century ago. Before that, it is doubtful that the average person would have heard the word “mathematics.”

I could continue, but I think these will give a sense of what I am talking abut

The trouble with these words and phrases is that they are tightly connected to modern culture. Hear “estimated time of arrival,” and visions of an airport arrival and departure board are likely to flash through your mind. Similarly, “maximum potential may bring visions of a room full of people on their yoga match. Nothing is wrong with such connotations in a modern setting, but in a different setting, they can take you out of the story and kill the atmosphere. At the very least, they are a distraction. In extreme cases, they can spoil the story.

A concern for connotation can, of course, take you too far. Technically speaking, for example, a story set in the Renaissance should avoid the word “Mind” because the concept of mind originated in the Enlightenment. But this example is obscure, and is unlikely to ruin the story for more purposes. In addition, some fantasy, like Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, uses such connotation for comedy. However, connotation is something fantasy writers need to consider in their editing — perhaps even more so than typos or grammar.

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