An anachronism occurs when a writer puts an object, character, event, expression of speech, or anything else in a time period when it should not exist.
This occurs most often when a writer has set her story in some time period of the past, and has not researched thoroughly enough. A story set in the U. S. Civil War, for example, should not have characters riding in cars, and most people are sure enough of their timelines not to make that mistake. However, it’s less likely that a writer will know without researching it when earmuffs were invented—and it would be a mistake to put earmuffs (invented in 1873) on a Civil War soldier (the war ended in 1865).
Common errors of anachronism:
1. Having characters speak words or phrases out of time, or to speak in ways that are not appropriate for their time period.“Cool,” said President Roosevelt. “I’m really feeling these New Deal programs.”
Similarly:Ellie flung her smart phone on her bed. “Oh, bother!” she said. “How my friends do carry on so!”
I’ve obviously exaggerated to make my point: a character’s words should not reflect usage either ahead of their time or from a time in their past. If you’ve set your piece in the past, be sure to check on any terms you may not be sure of. Dictionary.com has the origins of most of their words and expressions, and examples of their usage. You’ll want to be particularly mindful of slang terms and idioms.
This becomes trickier when you’re writing biblical fiction, because you’re having your characters speak in English, which of course is not the language they’d have been actually speaking. You have to work to give their words an authentic feel—which doesn’t mean that they must speak in King James English, with thee
and the like. Just don’t have them sound like contemporary speakers (unless you’re doing it intentionally, which I’ll talk about later).
2. Having characters wear clothing or handle objects that are not consistent with the time in which they live. Avid movie-watchers like to catch this kind of error. There’s a story—possibly apocryphal—that an extra in The Ten Commandments
can be seen wearing a wristwatch.
I read something once in which a biblical character had a glass of water—that’s an anachronism. Although glass objects existed in 1st century Rome, household drinking glasses would have been extremely unlikely.
Similarly, your characters may wear clothing that exists in their time period, but that they’d be unlikely to wear (unless you have intentionally written them as eccentric).Makenna fiddled with the wide leather belt holding up her jeans while she walked to Computer Networking class.
Belts certainly exist in the present day, but teenage girls rarely wear them with their jeans (at least as of four years ago, when I was teaching high school).
3. Making mistakes about the state of the world—countries that don’t exist anymore or countries that now have different governmental systems or borders or names. The author of Ender’s Game
, Orson Scott Card, has revised that book to reflect the fact that the Soviet Union dissolved since its first printing. If you’re writing something placed in another country—especially one in an area of the world that changes frequently—be sure that there are no geographic anachronisms in your piece.
4. Giving characters names that are unlikely for their time period. I have a personal story to relate here. My late grandmother, Francena H. Arnold,
wrote several Christian romances that were quite successful in the 1940s and 50s. Her last, unpublished novel is now in my hands, and I’m slowly working on getting it ready for possible publication. This novel is set in the 1820s, and the main character has a name that feels very wrong for that time period (it was far more common in the 1950s, when the MS was written). The first thing I did was to change that character’s name to Hannah.
The opposite can occur, too—I edited a MS for a writer who had present day characters in their 30s named Wilma and Hazel. It just didn’t work.
Websites like this one
can give you the most popular names for the decade in which your character might have been born.
5. Having your characters reflect values or behaviors that are inconsistent with the times. Again, eccentric characters may act all sorts of ways, either ahead of or behind their times. But if your work is set in the present day and no one uses digital technology, or if it’s set in the 1940s and all of your families have fathers who spend huge amounts of quality time with their children and split the housework equally with their wives, it just won’t ring true.
I can’t emphasize this enough—research, research, research.
I wrote a novelette once (not published) set in New Testament times, and I spent more time looking up clothing, food, customs, household furnishings, money, measurement, education, yadda yadda yadda, than I did writing the actual story. And I still got some things wrong. Believe me, if you get something wrong, someone will call you on it.
I’d intended to include intentional anachronism in this lesson, but it’s running a little long. That will be next week’s lesson, then—so if you have questions about using anachronism on purpose, please hold them until after you’ve read that lesson.Meanwhile, here’s this week’s homework (do one or both of these):
1. Make a comment or ask a question about anachronism.
2. Link to an entry of yours where you might have used one unintentionally. Perhaps a commenter pointed out an error that you missed, and you’re willing to share that with us. (However, please don’t call out someone else’s mistake, unless you have their permission.)Please tell other FaithWriters about this free forum!