Sara of storytelling has two posts on an interesting topic: when writing historical fiction (as she does), how far should you go in making the language realistic for the time described? The first, “Avoiding language anachronisms,” poses the basic problem:

The novelist has to find the balance between historical accuracy and the reader’s comfort level. There are extremes. On one end you might say that accuracy is everything, and damn the reader’s comfort; at the other, you might toss concerns about language accuracy out the window, and operate much in the way of Star Trek, where everybody understands everybody else, regardless of species or background…

The problem with lexical anachronisms is that they potentially destroy the fictive trance you work so hard to establish for your reader. It’s like ice water on the back of your neck on a hot day; you can’t not notice.

I thoroughly agree with the last bit, and I’m comfortable with damning the reader’s comfort, even in the context of her second post, “How to be right, and alienate your reader,” which discusses her exception to the general rule:

For my part, I like to think that in most situations it’s just good common sense to avoid language that is exclusionary or biased… First, in historical terms, it’s sometimes impossible to use the right historical lexical items because your readers—those of them who don’t know the language history, and even those who do—would find it so disturbing that they’d lose track of the story. You can have a nasty antagonist use any kind of slur and get away with it, but you can’t have a protagonist use any of the eighteenth century terms for natives of Africa without causing real problems for your reader. Nor can you simply use modern day terms, because they will stand out like proverbial sore thumbs.

Personally, I would be willing to write off readers who couldn’t handle “the eighteenth century terms for natives of Africa”; if their sensibilities are that tender, they shouldn’t be reading about the past (and shouldn’t go visit most of the world). But I recognize that that’s an extremist position, and as a straight white male American I’m doubtless less susceptible to the power of disparaging language than most.


  1. And while you’re at it, feel free to substitute Latin for Greek.

  2. I almost agree with you. People who believe that historical characters should behave according to current-day standards don’t want history; they want romanticized fantasy. Serious writers shouldn’t cater to them.
    However, I have three counterpoints:
    1) Writers, especially ones who haven’t written The DaVinci Code have to cater to their publishers. If a writer did use offensive language, their publisher might pressure them to remove it even though they used it in the interests in historical accuracy.
    2) Because most writers avoid using such language, I would find it distracting if I happened across an author who did. I would be pleased to find someone interested in accuracy, but it would interrupt the narrative for me.
    3) This is actually a point that comes up in anime fandom: when you’re writing about characters who don’t speak English, the dialogue is essentially a translation. Many people believe that it makes no sense to partially translate the dialogue, leaving a few well-known Japanese phrases intact.
    One could make the argument that the language in a historical novel (especially if the setting is far enough removed that it would be hard or impossible to understand) is translation. If that’s the case, choosing “native” over one of the offensive terms is just translation. I think that even so, this sacrifices accuracy, but I can see where people who might make this decision are comign from.
    [begin tangent]
    I think it’s interesting that there’s such blatant racism in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. I wonder how people would have reacted if Hermione was discriminated against by the antagonists not because she’s a muggle-born, but because she was black?
    I think it’s clever of Rowling to address racism in fantasy terms. I wonder if it was intentional (if she’s trying to convey a message) or just a convenient way to torment the protagonists.
    [end tangent]

  3. I wonder if it really makes sense to talk about “accuracy” in this context–I think it’s more a matter of following convention. To say, as the article does, that Shakespeare somehow “messed up” when he had bells tolling in ancient Rome or when he talks about the coast of Bohemia seems to me to be missing the point in a very fundamental way. The Elizabethans and Jacobeans simply didn’t recognize the same conventions that most current historical fiction does. Unless you’re writing a really serious pastiche in the language of the time and place you’re concerned with (which is almost impossible to do well), I don’t think there’s any principled way to say some expression is accurate or not–none of it is accurate because the language is different and the whole mentality is alien. It’s purely an aesthetic question and no dictionary can help: look at Christopher Logue’s Homer or Derek Jarman’s movie about Caravaggio–they revel in anachronisms, but I don’t think that makes them somehow “inaccurate.” It’s a really fascinating topic, and it applies equally to translation and to historical fiction.

  4. I agree about Shakespeare, which is why I left that element out in my quotes. She’s confusing two different things. But we no longer have the cheerful obliviousness to historical differences of the Elizabethans, and I think we should do our best to present the people of the past as they were, rather than as projections of what we wish they had been.

  5. aldiboronti says

    “We no longer have the cheerful obliviousness to historical differences of the Elizabethans.”
    Certainly not when it comes to costume and setting, etc. But with people we cheerfully accept, nay demand, that, the heroes and heroines of popular fiction, no matter what period it is set in, are fully equipped with 21st century mindsets. Only the villains are permitted to share the prevailing opinions of their times.

  6. aldiboronti makes an interesting and important observation; I’m posting about it on my own blog.

  7. You’re right, of course; the tolling bells aren’t an example of language anachronism and I shouldn’t have muddied the waters that way. This:

    But we no longer have the cheerful obliviousness to historical differences of the Elizabethans, and I think we should do our best to present the people of the past as they were, rather than as projections of what we wish they had been.

    is what I meant to say, but you put it much more elegantly. Thanks.

  8. Turns out sara had two followup posts: “to go with the cake: more links than a sausage factory” and “anachronistic heroes.” Her conclusion in the latter (responding to aldiboronti):

    So the writer of historical fiction has only a few choices. Sidestep the problem by never having the protagonist (a) encounter anyone of another race or (b) talk about the news of the times (the morally ambiguous don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach); cast the progatonist not such much as an anachronism but as one of the rare individuals of his or her time and place, ala Clarkson; find a way to write a protagonist who confronts current sensibilities but in such a way that the modern reader is willing to accept it.

    Let me point out, just to be clear, that this difficulty extends far beyond the matter of slavery. For most of known history men in general and many women have not been supportive of women’s rights; religious freedom was considered a bad idea; labor practices were atrocious; and the list goes on.

    I still find the issue a fascinating one; most readers seem unable to accept the past as it was, and I can’t help but wonder what they would do if transported back into it.

  9. Stu Clayton says

    It would then be their turn to be suppressed and denied a hearing.

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