I don’t actually know how much this post will help you in ridding your works of pesky anachronisms, but the title just seemed to clever to resist. If you’re not already familiar, an anachronism is a literary, spatial or temporal (usually temporal) transplant. A detail, a phrase, an expression, a device, or really anything else could be an anachronism; most commonly these are stock expressions or devices of our own time that we accidentally put into our works. Nor are they unique to literature, as there are plenty of examples in movies and other media. For instance, perhaps a period movie might show cars from a later model year driving around in the background. Or my personal favorite, when an author or screenwriter has archers “fire” their arrows, an expression which could not predate the advent of firearms. This last one even made its way into The Lord of the Rings movies (notably during the battle at Helm’s Deep).
Any genre probably has to deal with the thorny problem of anachronisms, but they become especially concerning in alternative world fantasy, historical fiction, and period pieces. I’ve been thinking a lot about language recently because of my reading of ancient Greek literature, and I’ve found that language itself is full of anachronisms of which to be wary. You probably shouldn’t describe a room as spartan if you’re writing about a world in which either the Spartans never existed, have not yet existed, or would not be known about by the society on which you are writing. That one is somewhat obvious, but what about laconic? That word is clearly derived from the Laconians, so oughtn’t it to follow the same idea as spartan, and therefore we should not use it under the same circumstances? Our modern words “meander” and “basin” both were once proper names of places in ancient Greece, so can we not use those, either? It is here that the problem starts to become really thorny, especially in alternative world settings.
It has been a topic of discussion for many years in the community, with some authors developing various contrivances to satisfy themselves and/or their readers that they considered these kinds of points. A common “catch-all” is to say that what you’re writing is a translation from some in-world language, which is a clever conceit: it explains away using Earth units, Earth phrases and words, the fact that the book is written in an Earth language, and so many other things. That’s not bad, but I’m not fond of it – I think that if you’re going to set up such a framework, what you’re writing needs to read like something someone would reasonable write in-world, and that can get very complicated, very quickly (although the result, done correctly, could be quite interesting, and might look something like Xenophon’s The Ten Thousand, which we’ll be reviewing here on the site next week). Of course, you can always circumvent the anachronism problem in narrative by using third person omniscient, which is why Tolkien could get away with using imperial units of measurement in descriptions of Middle Earth without it being jarring to the reader (though even in omniscient, you probably should try to keep these to a minimum, and they will still be a concern for your characters).
So far, we have mostly been discussing what I’ll call “discrete anachronisms:” anachronisms that can be reduced to a single event, phrase, or object that is definitely associated with one place and/or time period, and not another, like archers “firing” their bows. Although having too many of these can be distracting and off-putting, it’s not typically going to negatively affect the book in a significant way with a majority of readers, at least not in my experience. We could also call these trivial anachronisms, because they are largely based in trivia, isolated to the moment of their occurrence in the text, and without larger implications for the work as a whole. If you happen to slip, and describe a room as being spartan in your alternative world fantasy in which the Spartans never existed, your readers will understand what you are trying to convey, and they will move one – most will probably not even notice. More pernicious by far are what I’ll call “continuous anachronisms:” anachronisms that are not the product of any single moment in the text, but are instead the holistically generated result of the characterization, plotting, or other story elements. Not only are continuous anachronisms harder to define and explain; they are far more difficult to address.
Good examples of continuous anachronisms are also challenging to identify. Every context of time and space is unique, and has its own unique characteristics, and those unique characteristics make for a unique cultural zeitgeist. Any character, person, event, piece of art, et cetera hailing from that particular context of time and space will be infused with a fingerprint derived of that cultural zeitgeist. A person from such a context will have a distinctive way of speaking, acting, and thinking to varying degrees unlike a modern person. It’s easier to talk about this in terms of history than fiction, because we have a more rigorous frame of reference, so consider the context of the Persian Empire (which I choose because of having just read Herodotus’s Histories). There are ideas, concepts, and ways of thinking that today we consider absolutely fundamental that would be totally alien in that historical moment. Private property, for instance: until you spend a great deal of time reading history, you probably won’t realize just how unusual, recent, and distinct the concept of private property and its sanctity are to our unique point in history. Although stealing was often considered a crime, there was also a strong sense of “might makes right.” Xenophon, who was among other things a student of Socrates and a philosopher in his own right, even expressed that his ten thousand Greek mercenaries had a right to seize provisions from random villages simply by dint of being stronger, and because they needed it. That is totally alien to our modern way of thinking, because the idea of private property was introduced and evolved and became central to the success of nation-states sometime between 1400 and 1800 CE.
That matters, because if you’re writing about a world with technology and culture parallel to, say, the twelfth century here on Earth (which is more or less where a lot of fantasy falls), and you have characters with modern ideals and ways of thinking, you should have a very good reason for why those ideas should have developed so unlike they did here on Earth. While it can be done, it should be done carefully, and with very good backing. I’ve played with this extensively in Blood Magic, sometime as deliberate satire, and sometimes because I didn’t know any better or didn’t realize until too late. The Blood Magic world has developed a lot of theories related to the scientific method and ways of thinking about the world and the universe that do not align with its roughly Arthurian era, which I sort of justify by their experience with the Blood Empire, but it still can be a little jarring, even to me as the author.
Yet it is almost, if not entirely, impossible to completely eliminate from your stories continuous anachronisms. If you did, you really would have something that reads a lot like one of these historical texts that I’ve been reviewing recently here on the site, and while that might be interesting as an experiment, it would make for a very difficult and unapproachable book for the modern reader. I’ve become very aware through my recent reading just how different the world really was in various points of history, and there are some things that you would need to include to completely eliminate continuous anachronisms that would make it extremely difficult for modern readers to relate to your characters. For most of human history, people went to public executions the way you might today go to a G-rated movie: it was a fun event you took your kids to, maybe with some educational value – “Okay, Tommy, I know it was exciting to help dash that guy’s brain out of his skull with stones with all of your friends, but remember that we only did that because he disobeyed the goat entrails, so don’t disobey the goat entrails.” That sentence is itself an anachronism, designed intentionally to communicate how alien a modern reader would find a realistic portrayal of the kinds of worlds in which most fantasy is supposedly set.
Some authors (I think Brandon Sanderson is one of them) have gone so far as to say that what I’m calling continuous anachronisms can never be completely excised from a work. While I am reluctant to agree that it is completely impossible – I would like to think that with sufficient study and dedication you could write something that would be free of them – I agree that it is probably impossible to write something completely free of continuous anachronisms that a significant number of people will enjoy reading. Even Game of Thrones, which has become famous for its immorality (by modern standards), is riddled with continuous anachronisms, precisely because those things are still framed as immoral.
If it’s impossible to excise these continuous anachronisms completely, you might reasonably wonder what the point of even thinking about all of this way, other than to make all of us writers feel even more intimidated by the magnitude of the task to which we have set ourselves (I have often said that people who write speculative fiction must be experts in every field of study every studied). Fortunately, even though you probably can’t expect to eliminate them entirely, it is possible, and definitely worth the time and effort, to at least consider these sorts of ideas, and address some of them. The ways that we today interact with each other and form relationships is predicated on the ability to communicate instantly anywhere in the world, so be aware of that when you’re creating character relationships. You don’t have to make your characters public execution groupies, but you should probably spend some time thinking about how exposed they may have been to death, since only in the past century or so has a major portion of the world’s population effectively isolated itself from death on a sensual level.
By no means do I claim to be an expert at this, but it is something that I have spent a lot of time thinking about, and my recent reading of many texts translated directly from period pieces of literature has increased drastically my range and depth of thought on these topics, as well as brought them into far better focus. I’ve been working on and off on a piece loosely inspired by my historical reading that experiments with some of these concepts, including trying to reduce continuous anachronisms as much as possible – I have no expectation of this book being popularly consumed, if I finish it, but maybe I’ll post it here on the site as a curiosity. I hope that, whether you’re reading, writing, or simply thinking about the real world, this has at least helped provide an interesting new perspective and way of considering things. And please, if you take nothing else away from this post, don’t “fire” any arrows.