Modern Slang and Language in Fantasy
October 3, 2012
First of all, I’ll probably be sticking exclusively to non-fiction from now on, with maybe a short story or two to demonstrate a point, but I’m knocking off the thing with Siren and Illyana. I’m not a skilled enough writer to get the story right the first time, nor am I a discovery writer.
And now to the point of this post. Ever read a fantasy where characters talked like they were copy/pasted from a modern novel? By now, fantasy is rarely told Old English-style, and even Lewis and Tolkein seem dated. For some, the age of the writing makes the fantasy setting feel more authentic, and at the same time, modern writing could invoke the same feeling, I think, if certain conditions were met.
Most fantasy takes place in a time roughly equivalent to Earth’s medieval times, and in those kinds of fantasies, I think a more formal writing style is more appropriate. A knight wouldn’t go to a king and say, “Hey bro, I totally owned those bandits. Reward. Now.”
I say that, but I don’t think it’s as simple as making your characters talk like people from Earth in a parallel time would. There’s always slang of some kind, no matter what time period you’re writing in. In fantasy, we know the characters don’t speak English. It’s one of the things we inherently have to apply suspension of disbelief to when we read fantasy. Slang is often updated. Remember when things were groovy? I don’t. But my parents do. Have you seen the word “swag” around? That’s fairly new. Originally, it meant “secretly, we are gay,” but obviously, it doesn’t mean that to most people, and most people don’t know what it originally meant.
The point of all that is that language is variable. In order to keep up with the times, old documents are updated to be more readable in modern times. The Bible, Shakespeare’s works, and really anything written before 1800 is frequently updated. So what about fantasy? We read it assuming that the words we see (or hear) are being translated from whatever language the characters speak. If they use slang, one way to incorporate it is to use the exact words they use. Another way (that I have yet to see done) is to translate it exactly into what it would be in 2012 on Earth.
Yes, modern language pulls you out of a non-modern fantasy. But honestly, we need more 16-1900′s fantasy. We could have printing presses, guns, cars, trains (I’m working on one with trains, guns, and printing presses right now, where cars are in the foreseeable future). We could also have shampoo and body wash and processed foods and electricity.
If we really pushed it and got into urban fantasy, where elves and dragons and fairies and magic exist with skyscrapers, cars, and the Internet. And then modern slang wouldn’t feel out of place in the slightest.
I messed up my train of thought somewhere back there, but here’s a point I wanted to make before: what if you wrote your medieval fantasy and you’re just not good with old English (or something)? Well, do a modern re-telling of your fantasy. There are so many modern day Romeo and Juliet adaptations that I don’t even want to count them. Could you do something similar with your fantasy?
Next, I’ll do one on non-medieval fantasy, because I kept slipping into that this time.
Writing prompt: figure out a way to make the words “cool,” “groovy,” and “epic” work as slang in a non-modern fantasy.