Two writers on worldbuilding, fantasy, and whatever else comes to mind.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Register, Part II

Adapted from a post from 2014 on the NaNoWriMo Fantasy forum, in response to a writer who requested tips for 'developing a good fantasy voice' for high fantasy.

A fantasy story of the kind that you describe will have two different categories of voice, the first of which is the speech patterns of the characters.  These should naturally vary, not only from character to character, but also by context.

The main things to remember for character speech patterns are:
  1. Most people talk differently in different situations.
  2. People from the same area or family will often sound similar, but --
  3. When it comes to dialect, less is always better.
If you use older second-person pronouns and the corresponding verbal forms, make sure that you use them properly.  A brief summary:

I am, have, will, do, give, --
thou art, hast, wilt, dost, givest, -[e]st
he/she/it is, hath, will, doth, giveth, -[e]th
we/ye/they are, have, will, do, give, --
(Note that has, does, gives, -s never appear.)

Subject:  I / thou / he, she, it / we / ye / they
Thou art the true princess.  Ye are too many for me to fight.

Object:  me / thee / him, her, it / us / you / them
I will marry thee tomorrow.  Warriors, I send you to fight the barbarians!

Possessive:  my / thy / his, her, its / our / your / their
Thy lips are sweeter than wine.  Fall on your faces before the king.

Other possessive:  mine / thine / his, hers, its / ours / yours / theirs
My son, my crown will soon be thine.  Masons, is all this stonework yours?
Note that mine and thine are also used before vowels:
Mine eyes have seen the glory, and thine eyes have, also.

Reflexive:  myself / thyself / him-, her-, itself / ourselves / yourselves / themselves
Didst thou then see thyself in the mirror?  Be not ashamed of yourselves, good men.
Note that yourself will never appear.

The way to check it is to substitute the corresponding form of I for thee and of we for ye.
How could thee die? > How could me die? > wrong!
How couldst thou die? > How could I die? > right!

Note that thou vs. ye is used in two ways: singular vs. plural, and familiar vs. formal.  That is, thou is singular or familiar; ye is plural or formal.  People tend to be tripped up by this because all the forms of ye except ye itself (so you, your, yours, yourselves) are still in common use and thus sound informal.  However, in the older system, ye corresponds roughly to the royal we.  If your character thous the king, she had better be his mother.

But on to the second category of voice: the register of the narration.  (I assume that the narration will not in fact be the speech of a character, as third-person narration is standard in this kind of fantasy.)  I suspect that when you refer to 'a good fantasy voice' you are talking about the narration.  As has been pointed out before, there is no one right way to do it, but some things work better than others.  Rather than telling you what you should do, I'll give a list of some of the things one can do and the effect that they might have.

1.  Word choice.  Your audience may perceive Latinate vocabulary as more educated, or more laborious and exsanguinated.  Your readers may find Anglo-Saxon words (or short French words that have fully settled into English) sharper or more lively than words from Latin, but if you don't watch yourself, you also risk seeming unlearned or childish (cf. 'vomit' vs. 'puke' or 'throw up').  There are also polysyllabic words, short words, buzzwords, words from days of eld, slangy lingo, and so on.  You will perhaps find a lack of contractions stiff or stilted; they don't sound very formal.

2.  Sentence length.  Short ones are punchy.  Or annoying.  Long ones can, if well done, carry the reader along smoothly from one action to the next without uncomfortable breaks, but also can, if badly done, become tiresome and unwieldy, or even turn into run-ons, which is certainly not what one wants to do, and too many long sentences start to feel a bit breathless because they just keep going and going and please let me stop when will this be done?!  A variety of sentence lengths is, of course, more comfortable; but average length will convey a certain tone.

3.  Clause structure.  A paratactic sentence has no subordinate clauses.  Instead, its clauses are parallel.  They are joined by the conjunctions and, or, or but, and each clause could be its own sentence.  They are characteristic of a spare style but can also sound monotonous or childish.  A hypotactic sentence contains subordinate clauses, which could not stand alone if separated from the main clause of the sentence.  Although the complexity of more hypotactic sentences can provide a pleasing variety, they are sometimes less grand than paratactic ones.  Highly periodic sentences, that is, sentences containing many clauses, are, either because they have fallen out of fashion or because the modern reader, less capable than his counterparts in previous ages, is incapable of following such a sentence, or for both those reasons, uncommon.

4.  Word order.  Inversions one may find confusing, or grand.

5.  Punctuation.  Dashes -- like this -- seem informal, as do ellipses, I think....  The real problem with ellipses comes when readers want to quote part of your novel ... and then it looks as if they've left things out....  Sometimes the narrative voice gets excited!  The problem is when the reader doesn't feel excited!  Then it's just annoying!  Should the narrative voice ever get this excited?!  You decide!!!  Other writers let their words carry the weight of emotion and leave it to the reader to feel what he wills.  Three things can replace a single dash in more formal writing: a comma, a colon, or a semicolon; a full sentence should follow a semicolon.

Some possible features of registers are as follows.

Colloquial (low-register):  Common words (of any origin) with contractions; relatively short sentences; relatively fewer subordinate clauses but as many as are comfortable; ordinary word order.

Bureaucratic:  Latinate words, especially technical words or buzzwords; long sentences; relatively more subordinate clauses.

Ornate high-register:  Latinate words, avoiding technical words and buzzwords; long, periodic sentences; occasional inversion.

Simpler high-register:  Anglo-Saxon and archaic words, avoiding slang; varying sentences; relatively fewer subordinate clauses; some inversion.

Tolkien tends towards the simpler high-register, especially in the Silmarillion; most readers don't seem to realise how well-developed his control over his register is.  For another discussion on register (and Tolkien), see this comment from 2013.

The most difficult thing about register is that it takes practice.  Read very widely, think about how each author is doing what he's doing, and try a bit yourself.  Eventually, you won't be confined to one style that's 'yours': you'll be able to adopt whatever register best fits your story.  Have fun!

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