I have spoken to a fair number of people who say they don’t read fantasy because of all the funny names–including agents and editors who are thrown off by too many made-up words. This is one reason I recommend authors pare down on the invented words, especially in blurbs, pitches and queries, where they really aren’t helping you out. But today, I’d like to think about a different question of language in fantasy–the words of the story itself.
At a workshop at Readercon, the brilliant and amazing Mary Robinette Kowal remarked that what we think of as “transparent prose style” is, in fact, just white middle-American public school English. It is not magic. It is not a given of the rules of grammar or even of good writing that this “transparent style” exists (if it does). The remark opened my eyes in a couple of ways and made me wonder if transparent style is even a worthy goal to pursue, or if, perhaps, I just need to revise how I think about it.
I tend to prefer writing that is relatively unadorned. I think the goal of transparency in prose is for your words to readily dissolve into images and adventures in the mind of the reader. The prose should be transparent in the manner of a window that allows the reader to look through into the world of the characters you are creating. The words should not call too much attention to themselves, or it’s like distorting that glass or perhaps framing it with something distracting. Muddy style, with excess phrases, convoluted sentences and hard-to-follow metaphors can so obscure the writing that it ceases to be worth the reader’s effort to view the story beyond. But I am thinking now that, once the prose rises above that level of distraction and confusion, perhaps a different ideal for prose is in order.
Good writing should be able to illuminate the mind and heart of the author. In my own work, and more generally in the genre of fantasy, most fiction is told through a third-person, close point of view narration, as if a camera rested on the shoulder, or just inside the head of a specific character for the duration of a scene. (For those of you non-writers, this contrasts with either first-person narration using the “I” or head-hopping, where the narration skips around through a variety of perspectives within a scene.)
But the narration, to be true to the nature of the character, should be tinted by that character’s understanding of the world, their own attitudes, fears and worries, and their experience or expectations of the scene itself. The glass should be colored by the words the author chooses and by the details being portrayed to lend weight to the perspective of the individual character. This is often done in very subtle ways, such that the reader isn’t really aware of the narrative bias–allowing them to be more carefully manipulated by a skillful author, absorbing the perspective as if by osmosis. Sometimes, it is done much more obviously–as in an op-ed piece in the newspaper where the writer strongly states how they feel about something, and the reader who agrees might find little to object to, while the reader who disagrees would point out every bit of prejudicial language.
The idea of transparent style being born of public school and wide-spread publishing practice suggests that there are many voices being left out or ignored because they adhere to a different standard for language usage. These other vernaculars–languages commonly spoken–are starting to emerge in fantasy, with some striking results. Sometimes, it takes a little while before the distinctive voice in a work can begin to dissolve into the window through which the story is viewed. But I increasingly believe that adopting a prose style that more clearly colors the text can result in a deeper relationship to the story world and its characters.
If you are wondering how this, shall we call it, translucency of language operates in a fantasy context, allow me to recommend a couple of books. For a step into the Western side of the vernacular, check out Ariane “Tex” Thompson’s One Night in Sixes and its sequel, Medicine for the Dead. These beautiful and moving works settle the reader into the views of a variety of characters whose thoughts and language are clearly marked by their origins in a sidelong version of the American West.
And if you’re ready to step further outside, then check out Kai Ashante Wilson’s novella “A Sorceror of the Wildeeps.” The story itself centers on a dangerous expedition across a jungle teeming with rumor and magic, and the language Wilson uses to tell it creates a surprising and dynamic relationship with the characters. Fantasy fiction is meant to transport the reader, and this one uses some of the familiar tropes of fellowship and quest that hit the fantasy reader’s happy spot. But it takes the idea of transport one step further, by transporting us into an alternative approach to the language of fantasy itself. It’s a worthwhile journey, and one I’m glad I took.