How to write voices in fantasy fiction

“Bring forth the thralls! Let all their bonds be sundered!” And so on. This sort of language is the bread of butter of a lot of fantasy fiction, and it doesn’t really work. The problem with this cod-Medieval language is that it never feels authentic. It also brings the reader out of the story: it’s so obviously artificial that it makes you very aware of the author lurking behind the lines.

The best way to write fantasy dialogue is to use a pared down version of modern speech. Many authors shy away from this because it runs the risk of making their characters sound too modern. However, it’s exactly the approach used in translated fiction. When a translator sits down to make a new version of Homer or Xephonon, they would never think of writing it in mock Shakespearean English. They would try to make their text as modern and accessible as possible, whilst leaving out anything that was too slangy and contemporary.

It’s the approach that Shakespeare himself used. King Lear is set in ancient Britain, a world that is almost legendary, yet his characters speak in the common vernacular of the seventeenth century, Shakespeare’s own day.

This proves that fantasy characters can sound like they come from an older world without using absurdly antiquated language. However, in an invented world, there are certain words that have to be avoided. Hobbits don’t tuck into Stilton cheese and The Gray Mouser wouldn’t be cracking Brazil nuts, for obvious reasons.

There are many other words which come from real places on Earth. The verb to canter comes from Canterbury. It reflects the slow progress of pilgrims on horseback when they were travelling to Becket’s tomb.

The adjective laconic comes from Lakonia, part of ancient Sparta. The Spartans were as known for their wit as for their love of comfy home furnishings.

In writing The Adventures of Siskin and Valderan, I came up against this problem several times. The stories are set in a fully imaginary world, but sometimes I wanted the characters to use or encounter things familiar from earth. They are rather a boozy pair, and I wanted them to drink sherry (an English corruption of the Spanish city of Jerez) or port (named after the Portuguese city of Oporto). I got round this thanks to a little bit of research. Apparently, there was an older fortified wine known as sack. It’s rather obscure for modern readers, but with quick access to the Internet by iPhone or tablets, anyone can look it up on Wikipedia, so I felt it was a valid word choice. It’s also part of the fun of writing, that you learn things yourself whilst scribbling away.

There was only one area where I did knowingly use a word that has a geographic root from earth. The word slave comes from Slav. The unfortunate residents of the Balkans faced heavy oppression in the dark ages, and the nationality took on the yoke of servitude in the English language. The older word for a slave was the Norse thrall, a kind of serf, from which we have the modern ‘enthralled’. However, that word has become such a cliché of fantasy writing that I couldn’t bear to use it. I also felt it was a more intrusive word than ‘slave’ in the sense that the reader jumps back whenever they read it.

Fundamentally, that is the biggest danger when writing fantasy fiction: that the reader starts analysing the words you choose. Anything that stops that reader losing themselves in the story has to be seen as a failure. It’s all in the voices you use.

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5 responses to “How to write voices in fantasy fiction

  1. You wouldn’t have liked the book I am reading then. It is a low rent historical fiction series set in Imperial Rome. I am at a section where the main characters are fighting Germans and they keep referring to them as ‘Herman’ which jars a bit as it sounds like something out of a ‘Commando’ comic.The author also includes lots of colourful swearing. But I can see what he is trying to do, Roman soldiers would have had pejorative expressions for their enemies just as twentieth century soldiers do and they would have sworn a lot.
    I had a problem like this when I was trying to write a scene between a posh English man and a group of Spanish peasants. In the scene they would have been speaking Spanish but I was writing in English. So how do you convey an Englishman speaking halting Spanish when writing in English? And how to give an authentic voice to the Spanish peasants’ vernacular? Do you reverse them so that you have something along the lines of:
    Juan: What the bloody hell do you think you are doing? You come over here and stick your privileged noses into our affairs. You’ve never had to spend every frigging waking hour in the fields and come home to a house full of bawling babies who haven’t had a bite to eat for days, eh mate!
    Orlando: Err, I be sorry. I no understand what you life like. Me only want help you poor people.
    I never really managed to do it to my satisfaction. I don’t think the above is the answer.
    Finally, don’t you think that you are in danger of tying yourself in knots? I like the ‘sack’ solution (very Falstaffian) but how are you going to describe a horse going along at a gait between trot and gallop if you proscribe the word ‘canter’ (BTW love the background to that)? What do you think of Philip Pullman’s use of ‘Tokay’ for ‘wine’? For some reason he opted to use a Hungarian word for generic wine.

    • Sounds like you’re reading Simon Scarrow to me – I’ve read some of his stuff and I thought it was very enjoyable. His parade ground language sounds a bit odd in the mouths of Roman legionaries, but once you get used to it, it sounds more authentic than posh British accents would for the common infantryman.
      As for English-Spanish language, that’s really tricky. There are some fun bits in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (“Eso es un robo!” = “This is a robbery”). Of course, you can use subtitles in a film but not in a book. Maybe the sequence you mentioned would need more descriptive, along the lines of: Orlando thought he was a making a polite apology, but in fact he came out with a stuttering sequence of nouns that bore little or no resemblance to a Spanish sentence.
      It does depend on how much of the story involves the two groups communicating, though.
      As for what you do if you don’t have a word for canter, you just ride slowly, I guess!
      I didn’t know that Pullman was a Tokay man, actually …

      • Spot on, Simon Scarrow. He has just come up with a couple of turns of phrase that would not pass your authenticity test:
        Two Romans talking about the romantic poets! That’s a bit like saying “We are off to the 100 Years War”, some historical perspective needed.

      • But funnily enough, the ‘Allo ‘Allo did work quite well – you heard the dodgy accents and just accepted that the other characters were speaking a foreign language. Mind you, I was very young at the time…

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