Sunday, September 27, 2009

Writing Fantasy and "The Language of Possibility"

I think I wrote about synchronicity recently in a different context. In another synchronous blog discovery, I ran across the Confident Writing blog while Joanna Young was writing a series on "The Language of Possibility". I love that phrase!

This is synchronous because I'm planning to write a fantasy novel this year for NaNoWriMo. I have my idea and I've been pondering characters and world-building. Until now, my novels have been about real or at least "real-ish" people who live in time and space on planet Earth. I have written a couple of Romance novels where a lot of unlikely things happened because that is the nature of Romance, but they were things that could happen (they just probably wouldn't happen to actual people which is why we enjoy writing/reading Romance novels in the first place). Previously, my stories always involved a world where the normal laws of physics and reason apply.

I have not tried to write about worlds where the laws of physics may be different: Where magic is not "para"-normal and where the weird and strange (to us) are every day occurrences. Perhaps some things that we might take for granted in our "Cartesian" world would be very unsettling in that world.

It seems to me that world-building at that level requires a whole different level of writing, and the thing that I think matters most in achieving that is vocabulary. I have been spending a lot of time thinking about the changes that will be necessary in my writing to allow for the kind of suspension of disbelief to permit physical reality far different from what we take for granted in the "real" world. Young's phrase "language of possibility" describes exactly what I think I need to shoot for.

For one thing, the language has to have a kind of echo that straightforward prose doesn't. For example, if I'm writing a story about an American eating in a restaurant and I write, "The waitress disappeared into the kitchen" the reader will understand that the waitress went through the door into the kitchen and the character could not see her any more. In a fantasy novel, if I say "she disappeared," it may mean that she was there and then she became invisible by means of either magic or enchantment (which are not the same thing).

How many words, especially verbs, have nuances that can have a huge range of meanings? Most of the time, to make writing clear, we have to shoot for a meaning that is generally in the middle of the range (unless we're using symbol and metaphor which is a whole different discussion). If we go too far in one direction or another, the reader may not get it, and the sentence won't make sense.

I am hypothesizing that in fantasy, we have to let our words drift closer to the edges of their meaning. Moreover, we may have to make up words entirely. I loved the first Harry Potter book primarily because of its language. I loved the fact that Rowling invented or commandeered words when she needed to have a word with a very particular meaning. I was thrilled with the way she made the reader understand the meaning of those made-up words without becoming didactic in tone. The language was my favorite part of the book ... which might be why I quit after the third book, by which point the vocabulary was becoming repetitive and I had lost interest in the storyline.

Anyway, the fantasy novels I have enjoyed most have a kind of lyrical language. Some are dark and "Gothic". Others are playful and fun. I guess the plot dictates where on that spectrum the overall language needs to rest. The vocabulary has to be elastic, but somehow clear at the same time.

I know that kind of language when I read it. It will remain to be seen whether I can write it.

I would love to receive your suggestions, observations and/or comments!


1 comment:

  1. I absolutely agree, although I have never thought about vocabulary in fantasy from this perspective. In terms of world-building, it's also important to establish the rules of the world in which the story is set, and then adhere to those rules. Best of luck to you with NaNoWriMo. I did it last year and won!