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Author Topic: A question for people who like to read fantasy
Icarus
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Jon Boy, you keep out for right now . . .
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Does it bother you when characters who are not particularly educated speak way "above" their station? Does this throw off the effect or break the spell for you, or would the opposite be true: would it break the spell if the characters' dialogue was written in some sort of uneducated slangy way?

I ask because it just struck me that this seems to be an accepted convention in non-high fantasy. Am I mistaken? Here's what I can think of (And this is based on stuff I've read over the years, and I'm not bothering to pull the books down for confirmation, so bear with my imperfect memory for names and stuff.):

  • In JRRT, Bilbo and Frodo are farmers, right? (It's been many years since I read these books, but this is my impression.) There is no mention of any education, but as I recall, they don't sound especially uneducated in their speech.
  • In WOT, Rand's father is a farmer, I think? Before that, he was some sort of soldier, right? Nynevae's father was an inkeeper? Matt . . . what was Matt's upbringing? Or the other guy . . . the wolf guy? I can't think of what it was, but I'm guessing they didn't have much education.
  • In the Sword of Truth series, Richard was brought up by some sort of Warden--is that right? His grandfather was a wizard, and he spent a lot of time with him, so he could have educated him. But Richard's brother seems to sound even more educated that Richard does, if I'm not mistaken.
  • In Raymond Feist's Midkemia books, Pug is brought up by some kitchen workers or some such, right? I recall some mention of education at the court, but how thorough could it have been? I seem to think it was more about sorting out who to apprentice to whom.

Admittedly, some of these might not be the most highly regarded books out there, but am I more or less right that this is a convention? Or am I misremembering?

The only exception I can think of to this "rule" is this: all dwarves speak badly. Beyond that, I think minor characters may. But I think important characters always speak as though they have a bachelor's degree, or at least a good prep school education.

What do you think?

How about other series I haven't read yet?

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dkw
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I'm not sure that much education is needed to speak "well" in general. Depending on the topic, of course. At my last appointment we hung out with a lot of farmers and retired farmers, some of whom had no more than a 9th grade country school education. I couldn't tell the difference between the ones who'd graduated college and the ones who never finished high school based on their speech.

In fact, a few of the never finished high school folk were so well read that I had a hard time believing that they weren't college educated.

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Shan
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Bilbo and Frodo were wealthy, learned, "gentlemen" farmers. The other hobbits did the work.

And what dkw said . . . *grin*

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Icarus
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Wouldn't a ninth-grade education in US public schools still be more education than the average feudal non-noble receives?

In a story I just finished writing, I have a charecter who was raised in the home of a blacksmith, and another who is a blacksmith. The criticism was made by one of my Initial Readers that neither speaks like a blacksmith. The grammar is too perfect, the vocabulary too advanced. I started to think about trying to make him sound less educated, and to worry about my ability to do that without tearing the reader out of the story, both by being distracting/hard to read, and also by getting it wrong, in terms of colloquialisms that lower class feudal characters would have used. (One of my understandings of Low Fantasy is that it is okay to use basically 20th/21st century speak, but I doubt this extends to obviously contemporary slang, unless you are going for comedy.)

Then it occurred to me that this is simply how the characters talk in the series I have read.

I'm trying to figure out if that's true, or if that's just tired me trying to talk myself out of extensive revision.

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Tresopax
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Well, I'd just ask does it bother you when real people who are not particularly educated speak way "above" their station?
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dkw
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You're probably right.

I would try to simplify the vocabulary of the less educated characters, but not put in obviously bad grammer.

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Brinestone
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Icarus, I got a similar criticism for one of my stories, but most readers didn't notice it. I really don't know what to tell you.
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Icarus
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quote:
Well, I'd just ask does it bother you when real people who are not particularly educated speak way "above" their station?
I'm not sure if you're trying to make a point or score one. If the latter, you are barking up the wrong tree.

One of the things you hear a lot in writing circles is that just because something actually happens does not make it plausible. I don't want my characters so jarringly implausible that they distract people from enjoying the story. So I'm wondering if it is, in fact, considered acceptable for everyone in a fantasy story to speak like a reasonably educated Westerner.

-o-

dkw, that sounds like something I could do. *nod*

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Tresopax
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Scoring points is pointless. [Wink]

And if something actually happens more than once or twice then I'd say it must be plausible. I will have to disagree with writing circles on that one, not that I know what I'm talking about. I know lots of people who speak "above" their level of education, and I've read lots of stories in different genres that include people speaking well above their leve of education, so I think it should be plausible. And I know when I read fantasy, I can't recall any point where something specifically like that really distracted me.

I'd point to Ender's Game as a big example of this. The children in that novel do NOT talk like children normally talk, at least not as I've observed it. They talk as children think of themselves as talking, perhaps, or as very unique genius children would talk - but their speech is very much "implausible" in a "you don't usually see it" kind of way.

It might be a question of motivation, though. I don't read fantasy/sci-fi looking for realism, but I think many more avid fantasy fans do - prefering a world they can imagine actually existing.

Regardless, if many readers are being distracted by this particular feature, I think there must be some problem. I don't think the solution is to change the character, unless he actally shouldn't be speaking that way. Is this a character that speaks in a very intelligent, educated way, or is it not? If you decide it is, then perhaps what you need is an explanation why. In real life, for instance, most people who speak "above" their station do so for a reason - like they read a lot of high-brow books, or they grew up in an educated family, or something. Without a reason (a reason that doesn't sound forced!) it could be a lot more implausible.

Be bold though. I think if your characters are all just what the reader expects, they probably are not that interesting. The question is how to make them interesting without making them distractingly out of place - and that is a question, as someone who is a reader more than a writer, that I can't really answer that well. But as a reader, I don't like it when characters all fit the usual mold.

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Domasai
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Oftentimes, fantasy authors utilize a more formalized speech pattern for their characters to make the otherworldly-ness resonate with readers. At least, that's the way it seems to me; I've never been especially fond of it, but it's a convention with some heritage to it, so I don't expect it to suddenly change.
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kwsni
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I get irritated when characters talk like they've been written by somebody.(yes, irony) I want real people in my books, who don't finish sentences, or chop them short when they're angry, or go off into tangents sometimes. I think Jordan and Goodkind both write their characters like characters aimed at something, and not as people who want and need and care about things.

Ni!

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Icarus
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quote:
Oftentimes, fantasy authors utilize a more formalized speech pattern for their characters to make the otherworldly-ness resonate with readers. At least, that's the way it seems to me; I've never been especially fond of it, but it's a convention with some heritage to it, so I don't expect it to suddenly change.
I believe this is a high-fantasy versus low-fantasy distinction, but I could be misapplying those terms.
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Icarus
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Tres, I think my main character, and the other blacksmith, for that matter, are very intelligent . . . just in a "what-do-I-know-I'm-just-the-author-this-is-how-they-strike-me" sort of way. The main character does not grow up in an educated household or receive any formal education beyond a partially completed apprenticeship, though.

It may be that it's not distracting, so I'm not disagreeing with you. What I'm specifically asking is a question aimed not so much at writers, but at readers: when blacksmiths in fantasy stories talk like suburban white kids, does it stand out to you or do you notice it at all?

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Shan
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Hey, Ic - I'm listening to PoC - remember that part where Elizabeth asks for cessation of hostilities? And Cap't Barbosa's response? I thought that was a clever play on words/social status/educational level.

Y'know - there wasn't so much a "lower" manner of dialogue, as there was dialogue well-spiced with "cultural" and "historical" flavor . . . just a thought -

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LadyDove
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Ic-

I think that speech patterns have much more to do with how the parents spoke than with education. Also, in most of the classed societies I've read about, there were at least two levels of speech.

The one exception to this is discipline specific jargon. I think that it would be exceedingly odd for the blacksmith to start quoting Plato unless we knew that the blacksmith had been educated in Plato.

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Dan_raven
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The only time I've had trouble with something like that has been in books like "Battlefield Earth" where a human raised at savage level ends up being the perfect diplomat, pilot, shot, and master of languages. (some education can be explained away by science/magic gizmo's, but no education can impart the wisdom of experience).
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Samarkand
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Ever read the Little House series? Laura Ingalls Wilder was a very, very eloquent writer (she was also clearly writing "down" to her audience of children) who grew up on the American frontier and never graduated high school. No, she didn't. Go look at These Happy Golden Years.

My point is, what determines how you speak (as LadyDove mentioned) does not necessarily have to do with the fact that you happen to be a blacksmith or a girl living in South Dakota in the 1800s; it has to do with what you hear every day. If you feel that your character is currently speaking the way he ought to speak, I would go back and check for anything that does seem *way* inconsistent and also maybe have the blacksmith he apprentices with be a man who likes to read books and gets along well with the town leadership. I don't think there's any reason why a person who works in physical labor couldn't speak well. If your test reader picked it up as an inconsistency, though, I would address it in some form, like having a very talented teacher in the town or national standardized tests or a mayor who cares about how people speak or - just role models who talk like that.

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Oliver Dale
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Not that I think it really matters, but I needed to quibble a bit:

"In the Sword of Truth series, Richard was brought up by some sort of Warden--is that right? His grandfather was a wizard, and he spent a lot of time with him, so he could have educated him. But Richard's brother seems to sound even more educated that Richard does, if I'm not mistaken."

That's not true. Chase was a friend of the family. Richard was raised in part by Zedd, his grandfather, but primarily by the man Richard believed to be his father, George Cypher (it was George, wasn't it?), who was later killed by Darken Rahl during his search for the Book of Counted Shadows. Not only that, but it was quite apparent that Richard was exposed to quite a few literary works (on top of having to memorize the Book of Counted Shadows) and otherwise educated by his grandfather who, as you later discover, is quite qualified to do some educating.

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Oliver Dale
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And to answer your question, I dislike it (not just in fantasies) when anything (a character's dialog is simply one example of this) rings false. It detracts from the story and reminds me that I'm reading someone else's artifice. I don't think that it requires much education to not sound like an idiot, however, and I almost always abhor when an author attempts to demonstrate a lowly socioeconomic class by using dialet-laden prose. It's just unwieldy and awkward to read.
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Icarus
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I could not remember what Goerge Cypher did for a living . . . ?
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blacwolve
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Nothing pulls me out of a story more than having a character speak in dialect. When I'm reading something I don't want to have to translate everything that's being said into normal English so that I can understand it.

No science fiction or fantasy needs to be written in anything other than normal English that will be easy for the reader to understand, in my opinion. What are the chances that the English spoken 500 years from now is going to be the same English we speak today? Practically zero, and yet it doesn't pull me out of the Vorkosigan Saga when Miles speaks normal English. In the same way, any fantasy series when looked at in a logical light makes no sense at all. The idea that the fantasy world exists is a stretch, the idea that the members of the fantasy world speak English at all is a bigger one, and the idea that the population of the fantasy world speaks different dialects of English that correspond perfectly to those in our world is just absurd.

If your story is set in an alternate reality of our world, just consider that if your characters had truly lived, they would have spoken Old English or French or German, so you're already translating, you might as well translate into a form that is easy for your reader to understand while you're at it.

Sorry about the length, characters that speak in dialects are one of my biggest pet peeves.

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jd2cly60
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The problem is not whether or not they're speaking above their station but whether or not they're thinking in a way inappropriate to their character. You can have them speak above their station, such as Children in Ender's Game, if their speaking that way is you, the author, translating their thoughts into speech that clarifies and focuses the point of the story that needs to be made. In this respect their thoughts are still the same, but they've just been given a shot of vocabularly steroids by the author. This can be disasterous and kill a story, or it can enhance a story immensely. If pulled off right it is virtually unnoticeable. George R R Martin is a master of balancing between a limited POV of a child's (or any character's ) thoughts and their speech. He gives us a perfect glimpse into widely varying personalities and their speech is always character appropriate. So if Arya and Sansa had the same thought, they could never express it the same way, but both would convey the same information as colored by their various experiences and biases.

I think when I most often notice someone speech as 'out of place,' it's when that character's speech betrays a thinking that is completely innappropriate to them--then having to offer belaboured explanations (authorial rationalizations) of why they're spouting philosophy or world views that it is highly unlikely for them to know, think, believe or use. Anne McCaffrey is especially frustrating in this respect. Though I also think of Anton in SOTH.

Dialect is a very useful tool, but easy to overuse. Sometimes it's necessary, such as in the Yearling, or Mark Twain, but sometimes an author just doesn't have the ear for it. Each person will speak dialect a different way, they'll shape vowels differently, drop different syllables and letters etc, but an author can hardly have every single character pronouncing (and therefore spelling) a common word a different way. Then it becomes too much for the reader. A light hand and a little dialect can go a long way.

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King of Men
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OSC addresses this point here, at least as far as actual language is concerned. But there's also the patterns of thought; for example, it seems a bit odd to me that Rand, a farmboy, should so easily make clever strategic decisions about armies involving hundreds of thousands of men. (And, incidentally, just what are all those men eating?) Granted, he does have Lews Therin helping him, but then, Lews Therin is mad. :shrug:
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Icarus
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Thanks for the link. I always read those columns as soon as OSC posts them, but once in a while a refresher is a good thing. [Smile]

And thanks for all the other responses as well. It's clear not everyone feels precisely the same way. I'm not going to dialect or slang it off, for the simplistic reason that I don't think I can pull it off. But I will examine each line for vocabulary that may be a bit over the top, thought processes that may be out of character, and agenda and motivation. Hopefully I'll be able to satisfy myself WRT resolving these issues.

[Smile]

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GaalD
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OSC doesn't still answer writing questions, does he?
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Icarus
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He updates that page from time to time . . . once or twice a year or so.

If you're asking why I don't just ask him instead of starting a thread, well, I kind of want to have an answer soon . . . [Wink]

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Synesthesia
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Above their situation?
But why assume that just because a person is a farmer they will automatically talk uneducated? That is just a bit annoying. Like stereotypes of lunky guys. Dang, I hate cliches.

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Dante
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quote:
George R R Martin is a master of balancing between a limited POV of a child's (or any character's ) thoughts and their speech. He gives us a perfect glimpse into widely varying personalities and their speech is always character appropriate.
See, in my opinion, Martin's children characters are BY FAR the worst aspect of his writing (which is, all things considered, quite good). A good rule of thumb for figuring out how old his non-adult characters are is to guess at their age based on how they talk and act, then subtract five.
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Raia
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Well, in Harry Potter, for instance, that's NOT true. Hagrid speaks like a lower-class keeper of the grounds, which is really all he is; Stan Shunpike, the conductor of the Knight Bus, talks as though he hasn't a penny to his name. Other characters are painted this way as well. So it really depends on what fantasy you read.
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Icarus
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Maybe I'm being oversensitive, but I'm getting the vibe that a couple of people are suggesting I'm classist for asking the question. I don't like this suggestion. I'm asking the question because I want my fiction to not jar people by seeming unbelievable. If I as a middle class heterosexual white male write all of my characters to sound precisely like heterosexual white males, is that somehow better than making them sound like stereotypes of what they are?
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rivka
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But Raia, they are in in modern-day England. "Uneducated language" is pretty well defined. That may not be the case in a fantasy world (assuming the setting is not a real one).

Ic, I'm getting that vibe too. But I think they're wrong. I think your motives were clearly stated and more than reasonable.

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