Thursday, August 28, 2014

PITFALLS: 2 - Colloquialism

Def jams, yo
Someone recently asked what makes people stop reading a book in annoyance, what kind of thing is so offensive or just frustrating about a book that you quit instead of reading it.  There are a lot of common answers to this, but one of the things that annoys me most is when a writer can't keep their writing in genre.

The film A Knight's Tale and especially Your Highness did this extensively.  By trying to appeal to modern audiences, they used period or fantasy settings with jarringly modern language, attitudes, and even music.  The most recent adaptation of Moulin Rouge had hip hop music in it and included buildings and architectural style that developed after the story is set.

In a literary setting one example is The Mummy or Ramses the Damned by Anne Rice, where it is set in time by referring to Verdi's Aida being written 50 years in the past, which would mean the story takes place in the roaring twenties.  But there's no reference to WWI, the fashions are Victorian, and there's a reference to the Egyptian Department of Antiquities which would certainly have come up in a story about a mummy.  Its possible she had in mind an alternate reality or history, but also possible she just didn't bother with much research and didn't care.

Many historical novels fall prey to this, with the characters using modern slang, having modern attitudes and behavior, and even referring to things that didn't exist at the time.  Feminist women who defy convention are a regular injection into period novels, either due to the writer's personal feelings or some market sense that this will sell better to women.  One such woman might be a prodigy, but if most or all of the women of the time are this sort, then its a problem.  Why bother writing a historical novel if you don't care for and want to avoid the setting?

There are times when an author can get away with this, by using it for humor or have only one minor example used effectively, such as a minor character moved a few years for an encounter.  Another usually accepted use is romanticism, such as the King Arthur stories having men in full plate armor with stone castles, when the tale is set much earlier before those developments in Briton.

Science Fiction can get away with this easier, as it can use time travel, alternate historical settings, and alien influence.  Having a Connecticut Yankee show up in King Arthur's Court (said Court being set in the 1300s or so) can happen in science fiction.  However, even with such a setting the author should be careful to keep their setting consistent; no jazz played in a story set in 900 BC, even if the story is about a time traveler.  Unless its on his I-Pod or something.

Fantasy writers in particular are challenged by this.  If you build a separate world and carefully craft its magic system and races, draw a fascinating map in Tolkien's style, and invent a powerful dynasty of kings, then have the characters refer to molecules, DNA, and say things like "the cat's out of the bag" then you need a very good excuse.

In a fantasy novel the writer has to either explain carefully or utterly avoid colloquialisms, idioms, and real world scientific devices.  Things we take for granted such as standard measurements and weights, catch phrases, and cultural references generally make no sense in a fantasy novel.

If your characters in a medieval fantasy setting are measuring weights by kilograms and dismiss the possibility of a creature because of evolutionary biology, where did they come by this knowledge and system?  We in modern culture are so comfortable and familiar with science that sometimes it is difficult to avoid slipping references and assumptions about it into our work.

And now, some tasty licks.
And the slang we use so readily makes no sense coming from someone from an entirely different world.  "The cat's out of the bag" is a 17th century British Naval reference, to when the cat-o-nine tails was pulled out of its baize sack to begin lashing a sailor.  Once that thing came out, it was too late for the punishment to stop.  For a fantasy character to make that reference, they not only have to be familiar with the terms, but it has to be such a culturally established and ubiquitous phrase that everyone knows what it means without explanation.

This can be difficult and frustrating.  Terms such as "thug" (from the Thugee cult in India, not used until after the 1830s) are so presumed and comfortable that a writer may never even notice their use.  Its a struggle to try to clean all this up in a manuscript.

So either you have to come up with another explanation (perhaps something based on a pun such as in the Xanth books) or just abandon its use entirely.  Because each time this happens, you reduce the immersion of the reader.

Immersion is when your reader has been pulled into the story so well that they at least partly are willing to believe this is real, so that they forget its a story to some degree and begin to feel a part of what is taking place.  This is a beautiful place for a reader to be, from the perspective of an author, and anything you do to damage that is not beautiful at all.

Any time you find yourself using a phrase that you loved in the last film you saw, or that has become commonplace (such as "...really?" used sarcastically, or even older slang like "cool" and "awesome") stop and ask yourself if that fits in your world or setting.

Because if it doesn't, it hurts your story and you'll hear about it from sharp-eyed readers.