A Post About Anachronism


I wanted to post this earlier, but I had some trouble logging in today.  Problem seems to be fixied now, so here’s today’s post.  Better late than never, right?


I’m currently reading Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay.  Kay is one of my favorite authors, and Ysabel may be his finest work yet.  One aspect of the story that makes it so effective is the constant tension between ancient and modern, past and present.  The story itself is an anachronism in its modern setting.  This is a difficult thing to do, and, of course, Kay does it brilliantly.

Reading the book got me thinking about how we as fantasy authors blend setting and character and plot:  a delicate balance that is so elemental in our genre.  Specifically, it reminded me that while Kay uses anachronism as a storytelling tool, most authors need to avoid anachronism in all its forms.

What is anachronism?  It’s defined as “a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other.” Basically, for the purposes of this discussion, it’s anything in a story that does not belong, that jars your reader out of setting and narrative and character.

How does it manifest itself in fantasy writing?  For the sake of simplicity, I’ll say that the anachronistic mistakes I’ve seen made by beginning writers fall into one of three categories:  worldbuilding, language, and dialogue, both internal and external.

In terms of worldbuilding, authors need to be careful that they don’t establish a level of technology for one aspect of their story, and then undermine that decision by establishing a different level of technology for another.  For instance, I’ve read stories (excellent in most other ways) that have characters using medieval weaponry, but then taking hot showers.  I’ve seen authors write about preindustrial societies that have electricity or steam power.  Sorry, folks, but you just can’t do that.  Or rather, if you’re really determined to do it, you’d better have a REALLY good explanation for why it makes sense.  These types of problems are simple to avoid, but they require some research and some logical thought.  One book I’ve found useful is called Ancient Inventions.  It’s by Peter James and Nick Thorpe, and it offers some basic discussion of when a wide variety of technological innovations came into use.

Anachronistic language is a bit trickier to deal with, but again care and research can help.  The issue here is that most of our writing is done from a certain character’s point of view.  This is true even if you’re writing in third person.  You are still letting your readers view the world and the story through one person’s eyes (or, if you’re like me, many people’s eyes).  These people are limited in what they can know by their experiences and by their cultures.  So a medieval knight shouldn’t say that something is “as big as a bus” since he doesn’t know what a bus is.  He shouldn’t say that someone is being “paranoid,” because paranoia is a nineteenth century psychological term that he couldn’t possibly know.  And unless his world has the same Judeo-Christian traditions and cultural touchstones as ours, he shouldn’t curse by saying, “Oh Hell!” or using the name of Christ.  A couple of other sources:  for the sake of straight chronology — knowing when words entered the lexicon — I use Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition, hardcover) which gives a date for every word, and another book called English Through the Ages, by William Brohaugh.  Technically for my books, I shouldn’t use any word that entered the language after, say, 1400.  But that gets VERY tricky.  I limit myself to words that entered the language before 1600, and even that can be tough.  But it keeps my worlds feeling real.

Finally, dialogue.  Some of the same points that apply to prose apply to dialogue as well.  You don’t want your lead character in a medieval fantasy calling his best friend “Dude” or “Dawg”.  But here I tend to fudge a bit, because you also don’t want your characters talking to each other in stilted or obscure language, even if that language is entirely appropriate for a thirteenth century setting.  So I have my characters speak using contractions and somewhat colloquial language.  I love Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but I find the dialogue tiresome because it is so authentic.  In the end, I’ve decided that in the interest of keeping my books flowing and easy to read, I’ll sacrifice this small bit of authenticity.

The issue of anachronism in books is one that I could write about at greater length, but this is at least the beginning of a discussion.  As I indicated at the outset in regard to Kay’s book, anachronism can be used as a literary device.  But you’d better know what you’re doing before you try it.  Otherwise, if you’re trying to build a coherent fantasy world and set your story in it, anachronistic writing is something to be avoided.  You’ve worked hard to submerge your reader in your world; the last thing you want to do is jar him or her out of it.


5 comments to A Post About Anachronism

  • >>worldbuilding, language, and dialogue, both internal and external.

    YES!!! David, you hit it on the head. *Great* topic, and one that is near and dear to my heart.

    You do a lot more reasearch in this area than I do ((which makes me feel guilty)), but I still try to keep my language and the character’s language within a certain age-time-period-flow. When I forget, my beta readers remind me, which can be embarassing.

    That attention to the time period of the language affects the author’s voice, the tone, and the emotional impact of the book too. The wrong word can make or break a book sale to an editor or a reader.
    Excellent post!

    I may build on it a bit with my own blog this week… Hmmm. *thinking*
    Macro and micro self editing.

  • Thanks, Faith. The research I do is pretty rudimentary, and definitely seat-of-the-pants type stuff. But I do find it helpful. I’ll look forward to seeing your post.

  • I have, on occasion, come across books which are set in a wholly fantastic world, in which the characters use words like “okay”. Really throws me out: while I understand that the point is in this world, the characters presumably have a moral equivalent to “okay” and therefore use it, it still makes my brain go SKREE and seize up.

    I do the same thing with looking up when words entered the language. Every once in a while when I was working on QUEEN’S BASTARD I would think, “…wait. I bet that word wasn’t invented yet.” And I’d almost always be right. Kind of a strange sensation, realising you can’t use certain words. 🙂


  • That’s why I don’t tend to write historicals that are too far back. I prefer to vent to the future, that way I can make up words and say ‘hey in 200 years time this is the word to say’..

  • It is a strange sensation, Catie. But I also find it fun in a way — certainly it’s a challenge.

    I will agree with Natalie though — when I went to writing a contemporary book I felt amazingly free. I could use any words I wanted, I could use colloquialisms. It was great.