Writing Rambles: Writing Fantasy Dialogue

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Writing Rambles is a feature at Pages Unbound where we discuss what makes good writing in general, rather than focusing on the writing of a specific book.


I am an avid reader of fantasy and an enthusiastic student of the Middle Ages, which means I tend to gravitate towards books set in “old” or pseudo-medieval worlds.  A lot can, and has been, written about how authors should approach this type of world-building. Much of it, however, seems to focus on historical aspects.  I would like to argue that dialogue is equally important to creating a believable (not necessarily “accurate”) setting.

Unfortunately, a number of fantasy novels feature rather ridiculous sounding dialogue.  I mentioned this problem in a few recent reviews, and I had similar misgivings while readingeven more fantasy. (I am withholding specific titles because I see no reason to insult the poor books a second time.)  My unease inspired me to ponder what makes “good” fantasy dialogue and what makes it bad.

Common Issue 1: Lack of Knowledge about the English Language

Many authors appear to be unaware of the rich history of the English language, and thus helplessly mix words and speech patterns from different time periods in order to create something “medieval.”  Unfortunately, the most common result is a random type of language that was never spoken anywhere.

One author approach (the easiest) to the language situation is to eliminate contractions from dialogue in order to make characters sound more formal and therefore “old tymey-ish.”  Or something.  In general, however, the characters only sound absurdly stilted to the modern reader.  The author inevitably recognizes this and begins slowly introducing contractions, until the characters sometimes use them and sometimes do not—leading them to sound occasionally stilted and always confused.  This is a bad approach.

The second novice approach is to use words that “sound old,” which is inherently a subjective technique from the start.  The problems arise when authors, as noted above, do not have a clear conception of what words were used in the time period they are attempting to write. Randomly adding an –st suffix to verbs and using phrases found in Shakespeare is not the best way to write “medieval” language.  To clarify:

  • Old English/Anglo-Saxon (450-1100) Example text: Beowulf
    “Hwæt! We Gar-Dena   in gear-dagum….”
  • Middle English (1100-1500) Example text: The Canterbury Tales
    “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote.…”
  • Early Modern English (1500-1800) Example text: Shakespeare’s plays
    “This above all: to thine own self be true….”
  • Late Modern English (1800-present)

At all times, it is best to at least pick one time period and stick to it.  It is more forgivable for “medieval” characters to sound always modern or always Shakespearean, instead of awkwardly blending eras together.  Which leads to the next point:

Common Issue 2: Lack of Consistency

Consistency is important on both the sentence and the novel structure level.  If characters are using “old” language, each sentence should sound “old” in its entirety.  Writing something you would say and then replacing “you” with “thou” is not overly believable.

On the novel level, the style of the narrative should match the style of the dialogue.  “Old” language sounds stranger when directly contrasted with modern language.  The problem is exacerbated in books that purport to be first person narratives.  Why would a character write his or her own story in modern English and then talk to other characters in sentences like, “Where goest thou anon, lord father?”  This bizarrely implies that the character naturally thinks in modern language and must translate his or her own thoughts into more appropriate, “older” speech before conversing with anyone in his or her world.  And this really only makes sense in books like Incarceron where the society is purposely striving to live as though they are in a previous time period.

It is possible to make almost any type of writing style work, but it has to be consistent.  Great medieval fantasy can be written without any attempt to sound medieval at all.

Doing It Right: Tolkien As Example

Throughout this post I have referred to “old” language, using quotation marks.  By doing so, I wish to indicate that it is possible to write something that sounds accurately medieval without using actual Middle English.  Although I would support that as an interesting artistic choice, and some medievalists would be with me, the book would probably not sell well to a popular audience.  Thankfully, there are other options.

One of the best examples of authors who used “old” language:  J. R. R. Tolkien.

Admittedly, Tolkien held two advantages over the average author.  He was both a linguist and a medievalist by profession.  He was intensely interested in the use of words and in the Middle Ages, and was able to use his knowledge to work backwards with language, occasionally inventing words that sound appropriately antiquated to the modern reader but which never really existed.  (See The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary for an extensive discussion of this topic.)   Tolkien was highly familiar with the medieval tales and language that inspired him, and so was able to recreate the feel of them believably.

The above claims could be used to bolster some readers’ complaints that Tolkien is difficult to read.  (What?!  He’s playing with words!)  Yet a closer look at his text indicates that very often, Tolkien uses word order and sentence structure to create formal language.  His writing does not sound ridiculous because he does not spray his pages with “anon,” “yonder,” and “hark.”  An example of a beautiful passage:

“The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places.
But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now
mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.”

Tolkien also, in contrast to the “unintelligible writing” complaint, has moments in his prose that sound very modernly British.  The key to his writing is that he mixes this modern language with the “fantasy” language to create a style he uses consistently throughout his work.  The Lord of the Rings sounds real because it sounds just old enough to seem appropriate to its setting and just modern enough that it does not strike readers as overly odd.

Quick Tips for Writing Fantasy or Historical Dialogue

  • Read books from the era you want to emulate. Get a sense of how people really talked then.
  • Use “old” language judiciously.  You don’t have to make every word sound old or fantastical; you just need to have the flavor of old language.
  • Don’t mix language types. Don’t have the protagonist think in modern English and try to speak in Shakespearean English. Be consistent so people won’t notice dis junctions in the language.
  • Consider changing your sentence structure rather than your vocabulary. Think about whether reordering your sentence can make it sound more formal or “older” rather than trying to sprinkle in stereotypical terms like “hark” and “doth.”
  • Read your work out loud.  Can you speak the sentences you’ve written without stumbling over them or sound ridiculous?

What’s your best advice for writing fantasy or historically inspired dialogue? What are some books you think get this dialogue right?