Guest Post: Five Things You Should Never Do in Epic Fantasy

Five Things You Should Never Do in Epic Fantasy
K.V. Johansen

When Shaun asked me to write this blog post, the immediate reaction of the Spouse was, “Oh no, I see a baleful article coming out of this.” The Spouse accuses me of being obsessed with baled hay. I’m not, really. It’s just the most obvious example and symbol of quite a widespread and glaring error that at once ruins literary belief in the world for me. And that is point one, of my Five Things You Should Never Do In Epic Fantasy, from the perspective of someone who has spent a lot of time studying history and languages.

1) Do not put baled hay into a world that has not had its Industrial Revolution. I wrote an article/lecture/rant on avoiding anachronisms in fantasy and historical fiction once, entitled, “Belief is in the Details: Don’t Take the Present for Granted”, and yes, my file-name for it was simply “Bales”. Baled hay is such a lovely symbol of anachronisms caused by failure to consider the forces that drive industrial change. It’s amazing how many medieval fantasies have barns filled with baled hay, even ones written by people who aren’t third-generation urbanites. We do take the present for granted. After all, we live here. And people, particularly urbanites, tend to regard farming as something old-fashioned and unchanging. (We’ll pause for the farmers to stop laughing.) So, what the whole baled-hay problem represents is the greater issue of the Industrial Revolution. If your world is based on a primary-world classical, medieval, or renaissance culture and its technology, you need to be aware of what that means. Human technological development and invention is driven by need and by science, and if the scientific foundation for a particular development isn’t there yet, and there’s no need for the machine because you’ve got twenty slaves or serfs or tenants owing service, or sons and daughters and cousins, to head out to the field with scythes and forks, you’re not going to bale your hay. You’re not going to be drilling oil wells and refining crude oil to get diesel to run your tractor to power your baler to bale your hay. You’re not going to have big iron foundries to make sheet metal to mass-produce your balers to bale your hay. (And don’t forget the internal combustion engine for your tractor.) The modern pick-up baler, by the way, was an invention due to the social changes around the time of the Second World War, when people were leaving the land in droves. Social and technological changes feed off one another. The Victorians had stationary hay-presses to bale hay, not for use on the farm, usually — as they carted it to the barn or farmyard before baling it — but for export by train to the cities. Victorian cities, unlike medieval ones, were full of horses who had to be fed. The ancient Greeks had steam engines, of a sort. They just didn’t need them to do work, so there was no impetus for them ever to be developed beyond an experiment, a toy. Look, it spins — cool. Tell the slave to go draw another jar of water from the well.

Sure, even without the internal combustion engine or a massive steam tractor some lone inventing engineer could build, piece by piece, a hay-baling machine — people do adapt them for horsepower now — but why would he need to? In the pre-Industrial-Revolution world, and for a couple of centuries after, there are all these people around who aren’t employed as managers or call-centre harassers; they can do the haying. And that’s why it’s good to pause and think about the Industrial Revolution, especially when you’re writing about some aspect of everyday life you tend to take for granted.

While you’re at it, do a bit of research, read up on the technological and cultural era you’re writing about, and don’t err in the opposite direction by omitting things that don’t seem “primitive” enough to you. Bear in mind that guns were a medieval, not a modern, invention. Even the early Middle Ages, the Dark Ages, were not “primitive”, whatever the Victorians and Monty Python may lead you to believe. The era of the barbarian invasions in Europe, the post-Roman world, was a technologically, culturally, socially, and philosophically complex era, and so was classical Rome, and so was the Bronze Age.

2) Don’t throw in obvious gibberish and pretend it’s a language. No, I’m not saying everyone must be Tolkien and invent entire languages, with vocabulary, grammar, and a system of sound-shift laws to give it a progression through time. That requires a particular genius, and very, very few can claim to have it. But don’t say, “Urg” means “The place where the wind generally blows from the west around about teatime on Wednesdays,” because you’ve got more concepts than syllables, and that just doesn’t seem plausible. If you’re making up names and place-names, try to have them sound as if they go together, if they’re meant to go together. Pay attention to the sound of the words and names you’re making up. Don’t have a place-name that sounds Chinese-ish and one that sounds Romance-language-ish and one that sounds Mi’kmaq-ish as neighbouring villages, unless you’ve got a history that accounts for it by having had various waves of migration, conquest, and so on.

3) Don’t use extremely modern slang and glaringly modern words. Your hero should probably not talk like a valley girl, or whatever the equivalent is these days, but there are more subtle diction dissonances that are almost just as painful. “Pants” is a good one not to use. It’s a very recent shortening of pantaloons, and pantaloons themselves are recent. Er, well, relatively recent. Sort of. From some perspectives. The word “pants” is so recent that it’s a bit jarring. And besides, if someone’s pants are wet, in North America, they’ve been walking in the rain. In Britain, well . . . maybe it was raining really, really hard. Or their dog pulled them over into the river. Or a really, really scary demon popped out from behind a tree and said “Boo!” not long after the embarrassed person now wearing the wet pants had had a very large mug of tea. Do you want your British readers (and anyone over fifty) picturing your hero in his Stanfields or Fruit of the Loom briefs? (Wet or otherwise.) This is not advice to adopt what used to be called “Wardour Street prose” (Gadzooks and forsooth, yon demon hath made me wet my smallclothes!) — far from it. Just, think a little about how datable the language is, and if it screams post-war, try for something more temporally neutral. (And if you are going to use the second person singular and the verb-endings of the sixteenth and seventeenth century for some purpose — ritual formality, showing that someone speaks in an old-fashioned way — steep yourself in the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible and Shakespeare until you can get it right.)

4) Don’t use primary-world proper nouns that have become adjectives or metaphoric nouns. Words with an historical connection, derived from a person or place, have no place in a world that does not have those historical persons or places in it, even if the word has largely lost its proper-noun capitalization. In a secondary world, you should not have, by its primary-world name, an Archimedean screw, marcelled hair (quite modern anyway — a late-nineteenth-century process invented by a chap named Marcel), sherry (Jerez), port (Portugal), champagne, bourbon, Burgandy, cheddar, Edam, raglan sleeves, a Jersey cow, or a Lombardy poplar, nor should it refer to Catherine wheels, dalmatians, or Samaritans good, bad, or indifferent. Vandalism … well, debatable. Is there another word for vandalism that works so well? I can’t think of one, offhand, so ….

Turkeys are a serious conundrum you will have to deal with, if you’re including New World flora and fauna in your natural history. Perhaps, like small “v” vandals, we’re stuck with them.

Words to be faced almost as cautiously are the months and the days of the week. Tolkien’s epic grew out of a children’s book with a contemporary narrator explaining things like “dwarves have never taken to matches” and so on; in The Lord of the Rings he added a detailed pseudo-historical apparatus in order to explain the use of Wednesday and March, which he knew didn’t belong but which had gotten in through the gateway of The Hobbit. It’s simpler even now, in a children’s secondary world fantasy, especially a lighthearted one, to go with our names of the months and assume an interpretor to our world, but in an epic fantasy for adults, unless you want to have a framework around it explaining the “translation” to primary world terms and unless, as in LR, doing so is consistent with your world and your story, perhaps better not. January, Thursday, etc. all have meanings, and most of them are derived from the names of primary world gods. The Spouse proposes the word anacosmonyms for such usage — words taken out of their proper world.

Words, words, words. If you want to know about a word’s history, the very best resource is the OED. The Oxford. Not your little desktop Oxford, the Pocket or Concise, though that’s nonetheless important for every writer in English, but The Dictionary. The Oxford Universal is good. It only weighs a few kilograms and you can fit it on a table. It gives dates of use and etymologies. The two volume Shorter Oxford is also nice. However, the Queen of Dictionaries in its full glory is thirteen volumes long on paper — now usually accessed electronically by most who use it, through a library’s subscription — and it has not only dates of first use and etymologies, but examples, masses of examples, tracing the word through history from its first recorded appearance in English.

5) Don’t fail to consider the economic complexities of your world. This does not mean writing a treatise on economics (unless you’re the author of Wolf and Spice). It does mean you shouldn’t create an urban setting and blithely announce that the kingdom has been devastated by war or dragons or ravaging hordes of unspeakable terrors while at the same time showing the entire populace hanging out in the cities eating well. Don’t forget that even now we are all dependent on the people growing food and that it takes a lot of hard physical labour and a lot of hands to grow that food, whether it happens in the fields of your hero’s village before she sets out to conquer the world, or outside the city walls, or in Egypt, which once supplied Rome with much of its grain, or in China, which now seems to be cornering the world garlic market. It takes many, many woman-hours to spin enough thread to weave a bolt of cloth, and many more hours to weave that cloth. And before that someone has to shear the sheep or hackle the flax. And so on. People don’t just pop downtown and buy a new dress because they feel like going shopping. A chair takes a lot of work to make. These are not worlds of very many disposable things, because things, most made things, are relatively expensive — expensive in time for the people making them, thus expensive for anyone buying them in a cash economy. Cheap manufactured goods — that’s the Industrial Revolution again.

There were factories, of a sort, i.e. people producing the same object over and over, for some objects; the Romans made amphorae on a scale, which were shipped all over the empire full of various liquids, and lamps. They were really more workshops than factories. And such clay objects were cheap, relatively, which is why archaeologists can dig them up all over the place. They were emptied or broke and you threw them away. (And of course, cheap or expensive, they can’t be stuck back together again and they don’t rot. Watch very much Time Team and you’ll conclude you can’t sink a spade in the earth anywhere in Europe without hitting pottery shards, making you realize that however unattractive the habit is, hurling coffee cups and pop cans all over the landscape is an inherent element of our humanity.) However, there were not large-scale foundries or spinning-mills or weaving machines, and it’s that kind of mass-production that lets us have both leisure, and cheap stuff, on the scale we now do in the industrialized world.

So, for every man (or woman, since we’re talking fantasy, not historical fiction) who can afford a sword — an extremely expensive item with a lot of man-hours from ore to weapon, or a mail shirt (probably even more labour-intensive), there is a huge foundation of people doing other things so that he or she can eat and not run around naked, as well as getting on with the heroing. It’s good to remember that, when you’re travelling through your world. It’s also good to remember that archaeology shows that even apparently-remote neolithic and Bronze Age villages were part of a surprisingly far-reaching network of trade, with goods, and presumably ideas and stories, moving about, even if most people never got more than a day’s walk from where they were born. By mediaeval times, complex trade routes bound the known world together, and very, very complex webs of duties and services, rents and taxes, produce and commerce, held society together, from ploughman to lord, merchant to crown, country to country.

Just for the record, and very vaguely related to this point, peasant and serf are not synonyms. And feudalism and manorialism are not synonyms. And vassal and serf are really, really, really not synonyms. See 4) and why the OED is such a useful thing.

And those, she said, reflecting gloomily that she has probably done all of the above (except for the baled hay and getting her sixteenth-century verb endings wrong), are five things you should try not to do when writing epic fantasy.

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If you’re a fan of Epic Fantasy, check out some of our podcast interviews:

AISFP 144 – K.V. Johansen (author of this article)
AISFP 219 – Michael J. Sullivan, Part One, THE CROWN TOWER
AISFP 190 – James Enge, Part 2

And articles:
“Fantasy Tropes in Japanese Folklore” by Travis Heermann
“Depression, Suicide and Sexual Abuse in Science Fiction and Fantasy” by Susan Cartwright

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Comments

  1. Christopher says:

    I’m not sure I’ve ever noticed baled hay in any secondary world “medieval” fantasy, actually, but I’ll take you at your (fiery!) word.

    Strongly second the recommendation for writers–any writers, not just fantasy writers–to avail themselves of a subscription to the online OED, or to seek out the patronage of an institution that offers access. That said, there’s a wavering line somewhere–I can’t identify it precisely–beyond which worrying too much about etymology becomes ridiculous, because after all, we’re writing in a language developed in this world, across our history, and it’s likely impossible to set up a system of rules for what’s properly allowed and what’s not (beyond a certain point) that’s actually “followable.” Not to say trying to set up such a system might not be fun, mind you.

  2. Christopher says:

    Oh, and as far as turkeys go, the first definition in the OED offers an alternative. Guinea-fowl. Ta ta!

  3. What a tremendously helpful and detailed post! I think there’s some wiggle room out there. I don’t expect writers to always come up with some word other than “horse” to describe a four-legged animal of a certain height and build which can be used to carry people or pull a wagon. But some of the other things, like the place-named beverages, days of the week, etc. it’s a lot harder to justify.

    Great, great information here for people to think about as they’re writing.

  4. I’m glad to learn I’m not the only persnickety person who notices such things. Other pet peeves of mine are: No mention of religion in medieval times, how these people afford to go on quests, when do they stop and feed the horses, don’t they ever go to the bathroom and how is it they heal so fast ?

  5. Stephanie says:

    You are so right about these. I’m not steeped well enough in medieval history for details like hay bales to leap out at me as anachronisms (unless it’s the history of books, in which case, oh lawd). But even just a few days ago, I came across a Punch and Judy reference in the new Terry Pratchett book that threw me entirely out of my reading groove.

    Biographical word origins really get me, too–I’ve definitely seen jarring references to Achilles’ heels and so forth in fantasy. We can’t all be super nerdy about etymology, but if you have to capitalize it, shouldn’t that be a clue?

  6. Will says:

    Good post! Mass media usually portrays weapons & warfare in fantasy fiction & historical fiction very differently from historical reality (or contemporary reality, for that matter, but that’s a different subject). A complex subject in itself. I enjoyed the battle scenes in LOTR & in Gladiator for example, but not for their authenticity. A hint – even in ancient Greece, there was a lot more to warfare than both sides yelling at the top of their lungs before charging toward each other.

  7. J says:

    Christopher, guineafowl were ALSO named after a place!

  8. Yakira says:

    Excellently written.

    Supremely happy you mentioned the spinning of wool and plant fibers. Something people often assume is spinning wheels existed long before they really existed. Spinning wheels didn’t really become a household item until the 1500s and the flyer led wheel not for close to another 100 years. Yes, the jute in Christopher Columbus’ sails was handspun with a drop or supported spindle. It takes me, with a drop spindle, about 8 hours of labor to spin and ply enough yarn for a pair of chunky mittens.

  9. Shaun Farrell says:

    When I first read K.V.’s post I knew it was smashing, and I’m glad everyone agrees. I certainly learned some things I didn’t know. And, I admit, I’m a little nervous to even try writing fantasy after reading this! What else don’t I know?

  10. Matthew Johnson says:

    Barns themselves are generally an anachronism — individual farms didn’t have barns in pre-modern Europe, though there were communal “tithing barns.” The barns we knew were an innovation that developed in North America because land use there was dramatically different from in Europe.

  11. Casi says:

    You know, those things don’t usually bother me the first time I read it. Then I’m reading for the story, and I totally miss all the details of scenery. However, I’ve had it throw me a little the second or third time I read it when I’m starting to look for details.

    But let me be clear: this only applies to Epic Fantasy. If I’m reading Funny Fantasy I just assume the narrator is also a translator.

    As for the exact names of things: If it has a capital in front of it it must be described, not named. (If you think you didn’t do a good enough job then name it XYC in your book and then in the glossary tell us XYC is ABZ). However, things like cheddar… well if you mean to say it once you can say “sharp yellow cheese” but if you’re using “sharp yellow cheese” repeatedly in a particular scene, but don’t intend to reference it for the rest of the book., go ahead and say cheddar. I’d rather have the break in reality than the repetition. Especially if it’s not plot essential, or a language heavy book.

    As for the “doing it the quick way” part. Yeah, don’t reference modern machines. However, most Epic Fantasy has a magic system in play. If it’s a heavily magical world there’s no reason why they couldn’t be just as advanced as we are, but they do everything by magic. Now if you do this then you still have to explain why people run around fighting with swords and bows and arrows, rather than magic thunder sticks, but getting cloth made could be a snap. (Thus dresses drop in price). However, this only works IF it’s a magic heavy world. If magic is scarce in your world then none of what I’ve just said applies and you should stick with the really “red headed” Shaun.

  12. EMoon says:

    All excellent points.

    One thing that has bothered me in some fantasies is modern attitudes applied to non-modern settings. For instance, someone who lives in a “dirty” medieval village being far more aware of the dirt and smells than someone who grew up with them would be. What opened my eyes about this was a 3 yo’s reaction to the blood and smells inherent in dehorning cattle. She pointed at the pool of blood and said “Mama! Pretty red!” Kids who grow up around blood and guts aren’t squicked by blood and guts. Same kid didn’t find her parents’ hog barn disgustingly stinky and wasn’t upset by the pigs’ screams when we gave them shots. The writer may want to let readers know it isn’t a spiffy-clean medieval theme-park village, but having the natives oversensitive is just as bad. Attitudes must be consistent with environment, physical and social. OK to make up a culture for a fantasy that never existed here, but attitudes within that culture have to fit the culture.

    Some practice with (or at least observation of) pre-industrial ways of getting things done will help. Learn how to use the basic tools–sickle, scythe (yes, the neighbors will stare if you scythe your lawn, but if you’re an epic fantasy writer you’re already weird. If shy, scythe someone’s pasture instead), shovel (digging 20 feet of ditch with a shovel teaches you a LOT.) Handle stone, wood, leather, fiber. Skin something (preferably not human!)–ideally find someone who does their own meat processing and at least observe (ideally participate…how long does it take to skin a cow? A sheep? How much leather could you get from one animal–how much parchment to write on?) Notice that people use to bequeath specific garments…hand-me-downs weren’t just for children, and clothes were worn until the fabric disintegrated. Fashion was for the rich who could afford to have theirs remade; styles among those who couldn’t did not change rapidly. (And there were the sumptuary laws defining what someone of each rank was allowed to wear. A laborer’s wife found in velvet and lace was assumed to have stolen it or whored for it. Either way, she was in trouble.) Commerce: yes. Stuff traveled even if most people didn’t (though more people traveled more than is usually thought.) That bottle of Tunisian fish sauce found in Roman ruins in Carlyle…the Baltic amber found in the Mediterranean countries…and as you mentioned, Egyptian wheat feeding Rome. Political disruption as a cause of famine and urban collapse (remind anyone of some parts of the world today?) Doesn’t take many raids (by land or by sea) to wipe out the productivity of an area.

    Anyway–very good post with good advice.

  13. Shaun Farrell says:

    Hi, Casi and Elizabeth. Great points, both. Thanks for adding to the conversation. I particular like the idea of leaning Medieval skills and tools. Nothing beats personal experience as a tool for writers.

  14. W.P. Hogan says:

    Rebecca Barnhouse has written extensively on anachronisms in medieval fiction, and Diana Wynne Jones wrote about many of K.V.’s “5 errors” in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland, and then in her wonderful novels, Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin. China Mieville is very good on the fallacies and absurdities of traditional fantasy.

  15. Isaac says:

    According to etymonline.com, “pants” as a shortened form of “pantaloons” is from 1840. Hardly medieval, but also hardly something that would be unfamiliar to people over 50.

  16. Paula Helm Murray says:

    Assuming that all fantasies have the technology/issues/whatever of Medieval Europe may be a mistake of expectations. Someone took up “Inn at the Crossroads” for making up a corn fritter recipe. They pointed out that GRRM has spoken of corn on the cob in Westeros, Westeros is really obviously not medieval Europe and etc.

    I agree with a lot of technology points, but there are other details that people need to get a grip and go past. But if you get too prissy about it, it may as well be a “Fantasy SCA History story.” ARRRRRRRRGH

  17. Matt Winslow says:

    Excellent article.

    One slight quibble/question: ‘port’ is from Portugal? My understanding is that it’s directly from the Latin ‘portum’ (and the OED confirms this). Is there something I’m missing?

    • Quinn says:

      I always assumed it was Latin for portum as well, since it also features in French in phrases such as “ouvrir la porte”.

  18. James Clark says:

    I thought that this was a great article and lots of fun to read, a definite bonus for something that’s genuinely useful too!

    I think that the point of getting access to the complete OED is that while you may find it difficult to remove all naturalised references to this world, you might find either a) some historical hint for where the name might have diverged and become fantastical or b) a piece of inspiration to help develop the writing or the story.

    An example for the hint might be the procession of the days of the week, which as I remember, are named after the Sun, the Moon, Tyr, Odin, Thor, Frigg and (quite randomly) Saturn. This seems to hint at a hierarchy of some sort: Sun and Moon above, Tyr, god and hero of gods, Odin the father, Thor the chosen son, Frigg the wife etc.

    This information is some of the stuff in the OED, is interesting and seems like just the way to spark a conversation about what the days of the week are called and how it might be possible to come up with some names!

    Anyway, it’s a piece of advice I think will be a great help to me if no one else and I’d like to thank KV for sharing it!

  19. Lots of interesting discussion here! I guess my main point was that no matter what technological era you’re using as your foundation, the Industrial Revolution is a watershed you have to make yourself aware of. (Matt – my little Concise says port is derived from the name of the city of Oporto in Portugal, so I was wrong in saying it was Portugal itself.) Cheers!

  20. Kevin says:

    This is nitpicking. Fantasy is not of this world. That’s the point. Readers know this; it’s what they signed up for. They have played this game before and accept the illusory trick the writer is performing before them. Everyone involved understand what’s going on here.

    It is completely misguided to criticize a story because its world doesn’t follow the same rules and historical precedents set in our world. If it did, to the high degree you require, then it WOULD be our world.

    Hay bales and pants and ice cream or whatever you’re waiting to spring on people as anachronisms are embedded in the general suspension of belief. This is why characters can speak English. It’s why dragons can exist.

    Furthermore, it is pedantry, pure and simple, to ban words because they’re tied to the real world. Our language is tied inextricably with our history and culture, and it’s ridiculous to expect fantasy stories set in a secondary world to use supposed anachronism-free words. There are no such things.

  21. Eric Spain / Parthon says:

    Kevin: I think you’ve missed the point entirely.

    This is about banning words, or criticizing a story. This is including objects in the setting that couldn’t possibly exist, or terminology from specific Earth history that doesn’t fit. The idea is to help a writer avoid words that might ruin a readers immersion in the story. If you are trying to present a coherent fantasy world that’s not Earth, then more work to avoid breaking immersion will definitely help.

    Many great fantasy authors have created their own history and worlds complete with languages and anachronisms unique to that story. I love it when they do this, because it just draws you in and cements the setting. Other authors don’t do this and it shows.

    If, as an author, you are trying to preserve the illusion of your fantasy world, then a little research and forethought can turn a good story into a great one. The point is that these fantasy worlds should be different to Earth, and every time they are not, it throws us out of the story.

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