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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Reader Question: Lingual Formalities, Schmalities

If memory serves me, this question comes from Bowie of Young Writers Online:
In most science fiction and fantasy stories, people speak in a more formal way. Why is that? Is it to reinforce the idea that it's a different world than we know?
Firstly, it’s not true that most SF/F resorts to formal modes of communication. A great deal of classic SF/F does, but modern derivations of the two genres have seen a remarkable, and much appreciated, shift from the trappings established by Tolkien all those years ago. And this is where we get into the unfortunate side effect of Tolkien’s brilliance.

Despite writing what most consider to be the greatest fantasy trilogy of all times, Tolkien hammered into new and past writers several unfortunate habits. You see, Tolkien was trying to recreate something in The Lord of the Rings, a certain feel, if you will. He was successful on all counts, not only in fabricating a detailed, elaborate fantasy world, but also in trying to fashion an imagined, realistic history of an England that might have been (though the fact that, as far as I can tell, Middle Earth looks nothing like England could make for a good counter argument). In doing so, Tolkien fixed into the minds of fantasy lovers everywhere what were the defining characteristics of the genre, despite his setting out to create an effective, mythologized, and complex historical novel. The language, thus, is exceptionally dated, even for his time, and the clichés were snatched up by fans without hesitation.

It has taken the fantasy genre a long time to work out of the habit of writing in absurd formal dialogue. But it has happened, and it has, in almost every instance, been to emulate Tolkien rather than to produce something truly original. There is nothing wrong with emulation, insofar as such emulation is still trying to impress upon readers an experience, despite its biased leanings. What is problematic, as is true of all tropes, clichés, etc. in fantasy, is that these sorts of staples effectively damage the genre when done poorly. Of course, to call a lot of published works "poor recreations" is somewhat unfair, particularly because readers have varying expectations, and what I want or expect in fantasy literature will almost always be at least slightly different from what other readers want. Readers do like Tolkien-esque fantasies, a lot--and that's really an understatement. Sometimes there are reasons (they have read a lot and prefer that style) and other times it is due to ignorance (some might say that most Twilight and Eragon fans like those works because they have no read "good" fantasy yet). Invariably, it is hard to argue with how things actually are in this instance: derivations exist and will continue to do so, provided that readers are still interested in such things in the future.

There is also the healthy obsession with medieval literature that most fantasy writers have, whether they are willing to admit it or not. That contributors to the persistence of this form of dialogue.

Now the question is, are these sorts of formal dialogue stylings good or bad, in your opinion? I view them as either/or, because, in some cases, it works. But that's me, and I want to see your opinion. Leave me a comment with your thoughts!


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  1. I would agree that modern writers uses a formal dialog as a crutch in fantasy writing. Every word needs to have a purpose and a reason for being there otherwise you are wasting your readers time.

  2. I would disagree with any 'most', 'a lot', and 'crutch' you put in there. I find formal writing in pieces set in the "past", it sets the tone, and is likely more historically accurate. It drives me crazy when you have this pseudo-pre-renaissance novel and all the characters are talkin' in slang an' contractions, yo. It isn't realistic, and it's annoying. Equally it isn't realistic in novels set in modern times to have people talking like that. To be honest, I see this stuff mostly online in people who haven't actually been published ... maybe I'm reading the wrong books, but not many people seem to fall into the trap of using the wrong speech style.

    That said, some do it better than others. It was inevitable I'd bring up GRRM here, but the way his characters speak feels authentic to me, and not because they don't use contractions or anything, but in the way they order their words, in the way some words are used oddly, or without a preceding word--it's the kind of speech you find in ballads from the Middle Ages, which is about as close as we're going to get to knowing how they spoke back then.

    I was going to reference some more good examples, but I dismantled my bookshelf, I have to get to the train station, and also I don't care that much. Tell Bowie to read proper stuff. :p

  3. Dark Winged Angel: Agreed. The same is true of what Ellira points out about modern slang and the like.

    Ellira: I agree that formal writing can set the tone, but some issues with the fantasy genre, and what the questioner was trying to get at, are its obsessive reliance on overly formal language. I suppose it might be useful to define "formal" here. I was referring to the very stilted, almost Shakespearian kind of dialogue, thought not quite that bad. In historical novels, and some fantasy novels, that works wonderfully, if pulled off by a good author, but some of the stuff I've seen has been so stilted I can't read it.

    But I agree with you entirely about using modern language in what are supposed to be more medieval situations. That's exceptionally problematic when you are dealing with real places and times, but in a fantasy style (i.e. alternate history a la Naomi Novik). I tried to have a combination in WISB precisely because two of my characters are actually from the modern world (our world, sort of), while the rest are from a medieval fantasy world. But I don't go so far as to have the dialogue exceptionally formal, because I don't like writing like that, and it didn't suit the characters. Slang, however, largely doesn't exist there except when spoken by the main characters (or, perhaps, adopted by the other characters).

    GRRM's dialogue doesn't feel stilted or overly formal to me, at least from what I've read.