Language in Fantasy Novels: A Smol Pet Peeve

Posted January 18, 2019 by Amber in Memes / 16 Comments

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One of the more difficult aspects of writing is creating a believable universe for your characters to play out their adventures.  While contemporaries work in our current world, there is the element of world-building to create realistic social systems and towns.  But even more complicated is world-building of fantasy and science fiction.

Nothing breaks the illusion quite like modern slang being used in a fantasy universe.  While I was reading The Queen’s Rising, I ran into this a few times, and it detracted from the world being built there.  Fantasy requires such a level of suspension of disbelief that the author needs to be careful to stick to the constraints of the world.  Using language you would find in the 21st century United States, reliant on metaphors from pop culture, breaks away from a sword-and-magic-wielding world of dragons and queens.

That said, there’s a fine line in what is appropriate language to include in a fantasy.  I remember reading an interview with Patrick Rothfuss (author of The Name of the Wind) sometime earlier this year where he discussed language and fantasy.  I apologize upfront, because I just spent about an hour trying to find this interview and wasn’t able to locate the original source… but basically, what he said is this: language in fantasy is a slippery slope.  On the one hand, you don’t want to use phrases like “Do or do not, there is no try” because that’s a Star Wars reference and requires the universe to either have Star Wars, or else have a Yoda clone which is, essentially, plagiarism.

On the other hand, you can’t analyze too much, because you’ll lose your mind.  Using adjectives like “beautiful” technically requires Old French, because it comes from “biauté” and the French are probably not in your fantasy world?  Because this is not our world, it’s a different one.  Analyzing language to this depth would drive an author crazy.  So language in fantasy is very complicated.  If you’re not careful enough, you break the illusion.  If you’re too careful, you end up writing a novel in your own homemade language.

I’m finding that more and more of the new fantasy novels are pulling a little too much of its language from modern speech.  Personally, it drives me crazy, though I do appreciate how difficult it must be to assure that modern language patterns don’t make it into the final manuscript.  It can easily ruin a book for me if I don’t believe in the world.

Is it just me?

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This week’s Book Blogger Hop asks:

18th – 24th – Is there anything that drives you bonkers when you’re reading a book and makes you want tell the author a thing or two?

Short answer:  So on one hand, no of course not.  I’m not strictly qualified to tell a published author anything.  There are definitely aspects of novels that disappoint me, that make me wonder what the author was thinking, or times where I’ve read things I believed more.  But I’d never go up to someone and say, “Well, listen here!”

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Do you read a lot of fantasy?

Does it both you when contemporary language or pop culture references are used in sci-fi or fantasy?

What are some of your biggest book pet peeves?
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16 responses to “Language in Fantasy Novels: A Smol Pet Peeve

  1. I 100% agree! Not even slang, but any colloquialisms or vernacular that are clearly out of place/time take me out of the story and irritate me!

    • Amber

      It’s so good to know I’m not the only one jarred by this stuff. Vernacular and colloquialisms… anything out of the time and place completely breaks the feel of the book. It’s a bummer, because I’ve definitely felt rattled by dialogue in an otherwise fantastic book.

  2. I find it’s such a hard balance to perfect. Because while modern slag totally does ruin the mood and the atmosphere, when the language is too different and too alienating, it can be hard to ‘believe’ in it as well. There needs to be a balance of otherworldly-ness while still also having some connections to our language. I am always impressed when authors get it right!

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    • Amber

      I’m really kicking myself about not being able to find the interview with Patrick Rothfuss. He made some really excellent points about the balance and choosing words carefully to keep things relatable while not breaking the atmosphere. You’re right that so few hit it perfectly – it’s so fantastic when they do!

  3. This is a very interesting topic! With reading, I find it quite a distraction when modern words are used. I remember reading a post about how the English language has many linguistic roots – so if a certain country doesn’t exist in the fantasy world, is it appropriate to use the word?

    With writing, I always have to look up what words were not in use, especially with my book being set in Asia I have to re-consider certain slangs!

    • Amber

      Linguistic roots make fantasy writing very difficult. If you think too much about it, then you basically have to create your own language that nobody can read. I think that is what makes Tolkien’s work in particular so impressive – he did just that for many of the race’s languages. For the rest of us, though, it becomes a balance of using the language we have to keep people in the world… too much vernacular can be jarring.

      You’re also correct about different parts of the world. American slang, for example, definitely wouldn’t work in New Zealand.

  4. I really like this post! That interview with Patrick Rothfuss sounds really interesting because he does have a point – if a fantasy world is an entirely different world they wouldn’t actually have any of our language at all, but then we wouldn’t be able to understand anything was written down.

    I do think it’s a difficult balance to strike, though. My biggest pet peeve is when very modern, particularly American, slang is used in high fantasy – I recently read a high fantasy novella where the two heroines were princesses and one of them used the word ‘dumb’ which completely pulled me out of the story.

    But writers also have to be careful not to make speech sound too Shakespearean and forced, and then there are genres like urban fantasy that are set in our world anyway so then there’s the added challenge of using our modern day language to describe something magical and make it believable. It’s definitely a slippery slope!

    Ultimately, is the dialogue matches the tone and feel of the story, then I don’t have a problem with it.

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    • Amber

      Your last statement covers it all! As long as it doesn’t make you step back and say, “Wait, what did she just say?” then the dialogue is done well. I think this line is different for different readers, but it’s definitely there. The trick is simply not to cross it, but keep the reader engaged.

  5. I totally agree with you. I’ve come across modern slang in historical fantasy a few times and it takes me right out of the story. But I do appreciate how difficult it can be for authors to get right. Part of my WiP is set on an alien planet and I’m grappling with the language issue for that. Somehow they have to be able to communicate with humans, so I think I’ll have to incorporate some kind of babel fish style translation device. It doesn’t make sense to me how aliens in a lot of books somehow know how to speak perfect English.

    • Amber

      Douglas Adams’s babel fish was ingenious. Totally canceled out the problem of translation, and gave a reasonable explanation. I would definitely go that route in sci-fi.

  6. I do read a lot of fantasy but I can’t say I have ever noticed this before? What were some of the things you found in Queens Rising that didn’t fit? I think it would bug me if a epic fantasy novel used that star wars line, so I definitely see what you mean!! Great post 😀

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    • Amber

      The thing that stood out the most for me in The Queen’s Rising was the use of week and month names. There was this big plan happening on a Thursday, and while it’s one thing to think “ah, a day of the week”… there’s also Norse mythology behind that name, which wouldn’t exist in this world as it is presented. It was just something that ignited this post, but I’ve seen things like it across other various novels. 🙂 I know that the measurement and naming of time is something I struggle with when writing myself, so I’m just super attuned to it.

        • Amber

          That is awesome, though! I wish they didn’t pull me out… proper nouns tend to be the big thing for me. But given that, you’d probably enjoy The Queen’s Rising more than I did. 😉