Friday, February 4, 2011

Fantastic Anachronisms

Aristotle, portrayed in the Nuremberg
Chronicle (1493) in 15th-century garb.
I was reading a fantasy novel last night when I came across one character saying to another, "Don't be so melodramatic." There's nothing too extraordinary about that phrase. We hear it all the time. So why did I stop reading? Why did that line interrupt the all important fictional dream? Because the setting for this particular story is very medieval and melodramatic is a relatively modern word. Websters lists its first recorded usage as 1808, nowhere near the Middle Ages. So, when I read the character's statement, I said to myself "That's an anachronism," and stopped thinking about the action in the story.

To be fair to the author, the story's fantasy world is not our own and has a different history, so maybe melodramas have already been developed in the story's world. However, there has been no discussion of dramaturgy in the story, so the reader doesn't know what types of dramas have been developed. The only thing the reader has to go on is what has already happened in the story and what the reader can fill in based on knowledge of similar periods from our world's history.

The fantasy writer whose setting is analogous to a historical period from our world's history faces a particular problem with language. The writer must be careful about using modern terms or figures of speech and if they are used, the writer must establish that such language is appropriate to the fantasy world. The challenge to avoid unintentional anachronisms is much easier said than done.

Does anyone else notice these types of slips when reading historical fantasy? Do they bother you?


  1. Only a little bit, mostly on second or third readings.

  2. Dialogue must be true to character AND true to timeframe. I don't read/write much historical fantasy, but I know it would irritate me if I stumbled across such anachronisms. They are, however, pretty cool in time-travel SF...