A fantasy writer’s pet peeve: Stop screaming anachronism

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What do you mean, there were no castles in pre-Norman England?!

What is an anachronism, you ask? Merriam Webster’s definition is as follows: 1. an error in chronology, especially a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other; 2. a person or a thing that is chronologically out of place, especially one from a former age that is incongruous in the present; and 3. the state or condition of being chronologically out of place.

An example of an anachronism is as follows: You are reading a book that takes place during the Civil War and penicillin is used to treat infections. What is the problem with this? Well, penicillin was not discovered until 1928 by Alexander Fleming. For a funny example of a lot of anachronisms, visit The Sage’s Master Piece Fanfic Theatre.

Where My Peeve Comes In…

It never fails when someone reads my fantasy novel I will get complaints about anachronisms: “Would they have that back then?” The addition of the “back then” usually makes me sigh as by that they are referring to medieval Europe — even though my world/continent resembles a 1700s Europe more, most readers are too used to fantasy taking place in medieval times, so they automatically assume that time period no matter how many clues are placed that point to another era. And that is where my pet peeve resides.

“Back then” does not work with my world: It is not Earth. My world has developed in a different way and has its own history that while inspired from some of Earth’s historical events stands on its own. For an example, there is no Christianity, no Islam, no Buddhism, and so on in my world. The religions of my world, while some might bear some resemblance to earthly ones, have allowed for quicker medical discovers without religion preventing certain medical studies, such as cadaver research. And that is really just the tip of the iceberg of small changes here and there that have affected the development of my world, well really just one continent that like Japan went through a period of time where it was isolated from the rest of the world.

Of course, not all fantasy and science fiction novels are exempt from anachronisms. If you are going to have you space crew travel back in time to 1951 Earth, ‘In God We Trust’ should not appear on U.S. paper currency (it did not appear until 1957). Similarly, fantasy writers who simply take on a medieval setting without fleshing it, or their world, out may stretch their readers’ suspension of disbelief passed its limits since they have not been given any reason to expect technology or items that are not from Earth’s medieval period.

Fantasy writers need to know their creation inside and out to know what is possible within it and why. Hard rules need to be set and stuck to. Fantasy writers should also avoid ill-fitting descriptions, e.g. “as fast as a jet plane,” in a world that does not have jet planes.

However, writers need to know and accept they cannot appease everyone; there will always be someone who will nitpick a word for being too modern despite the word having actually been around since the late-1600s. With this in mind, fantasy writers need to write what they want to write and what is right for their story while still maintaining logical rules.

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Categories: Ravings | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “A fantasy writer’s pet peeve: Stop screaming anachronism

  1. I enjoyed your post. It conveyed my own thoughts exactly. I read once that an author should use no description that is unfamiliar to the character involved.

    • smwright

      Thanks! And yes, that is a very good guidepost when writing period pieces and speculative fiction.

  2. Eughk! I know what you mean! Cannot stand these.

  3. Rachelle

    Great post! I agree.

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