A previous lesson was about anachronisms
—items, people, speech, or behavior that are out of place in time.
The main idea of that lesson was that writers should try diligently to avoid anachronisms, because they are errors in your writing that may cause readers to devalue it. Writers should research the time periods in her their pieces are set, so that everything from the clothing their characters wear to the words they speak is historically accurate.
However, contemporary literature and media are full of examples of intentional anachronism
, and it can be great fun to introduce this into your writing. It’s especially common in works that feature time travel and in science fiction. In the lovely movie Somewhere in Time
, when the protagonist discovers coins that are out of their time period, his journey to the past comes to an abrupt end. Objects out of time are a common problem in time travel stories, in fact.
You can also find deliberate anachronism in science fiction. The television series Firefly
is set far in the future, but the characters dress in a sort of Old West garb. And steam punk
is a genre that incorporates both technology and Victorian trappings.
Not all anachronism is science fiction-y, though. There may be times in which any writer will choose to intentionally employ an anachronism for creative effect. I’ve listed a few here, and you’ll get a chance to add your own to the list at the end of this lesson.
1. A character may speak or dress in an out-of-time manner intentionally as a quirk of personality. This could happen in a piece that is either serious or humorous. I’m thinking of examples like an eccentric aunt who dresses like a 1920s flapper, a teenage boy who tips his fedora, a character who speaks like someone from another era as an affectation. In Lisa O’Donnell’s book The Death of Bees
(very dark and not for sensitive readers), the character of Nelly is a disturbed young teen in the present day who speaks as if she’s in a Jane Austen novel.
I wrote a piece (as Addie Pleasance) called Dougal Makes an Alliance
in which I used intentional anachronisms of speech and behavior. Go ahead and pop over and give it a read—see if you can find what I did. (Judging by the comments, I did a poor job, as no one seemed to notice it. But perhaps now that I’ve called myself out, it will be more obvious).
The first hint that I was doing something other than a period piece set in some vague medieval Europe was at the end of the first section, where the prince responds to his parents by saying “Wait…what?” That’s a way that contemporary teens and twenty-somethings speak, and wouldn’t be expected of a medieval prince.
As the story proceeds, both the prince and his intended bride speak, think, and act more like contemporary teens than inhabitants of medieval Europe. There are more small glimpses into the minds of Dougal and Liyana, and then we get to Dougal’s final speech, which starts like this: “So . . . yeah. I’m not good at speeches. But this food looks awesome, right?”
So why did I do this? For a few reasons. First, I wanted to be humorous, and I also hoped that once Dougal acted out-of-time early in the story, readers would notice something awry and might read with a little bit more intention. Second (and this is more subtle), I hoped that the underlying message might be something like tradition isn’t always the best—sometimes it’s better to do things a new way, as evidenced by Dougal’s reaction to the feast (which might remind some readers of the parable of the wedding feast in Luke 14).
2. A writer might choose to update a Bible story by retelling it with modern characters or settings. This might serve several purposes: to reach a specific audience (children, perhaps, or the unsaved) or to help readers to look at familiar stories in a new light.
Biblical anachronism might be accomplished by keeping the ancient setting but having the people speak using contemporary language, complete with slang and idioms, or it might be done by having the familiar biblical people inhabit the present day, either with their own names or with updated, modern ones.
Be aware that when you fiddle with Bible stories, readers sometimes take offense. You must be sure that it doesn’t seem as if you’re mocking the story in any way, and that the reason you’ve chosen to introduce anachronism is clear.
There are many examples in the Writing Challenge of deliberate biblical anachronism, and I hope that some WC contributors will link to them in responses to this post.HOMEWORK (do any of these that you wish):
1. Ask a question or make a comment about deliberate anachronism.
2. Give another example, either from your own writing, or from literature or media. A link would be dandy, if you’ve got one.
3. Give another reason why a writer might choose to use intentional anachronism.
4. Are you comfortable with biblical anachronism? Why or why not?
5. Write a paragraph with an intentional anachronism, and tell why you think it’s effective there.