A fictitious character walks up to you and says, “The other day I saw two birds in flight, one below the other. The further from me they flew, the closer together they came, until at last, in the distance, they merged into a single bird.”
How would you respond? My first thought is “You’re farsighted. You should get glasses.” But I’m not you and that is very important.
How would people from other times and places have responded? Perhaps “You are seeing double. You should drink less ale.” Or, “Your vision is a terrible omen. You should be burned at the stake.” Or, “You have seen the bird’s spirit flying beside it. You should study under the tribal shaman.”
The point that I am so subtly bludgeoning here is that everyone’s answer is based on their knowledge, their culture, their perspective. This is particularly important for fictitious people, who carry the burden of illustrating their world to their readers.
The culture and perspective of the characters impacts not only how they see the world, but the choices they make and the words they use. And it is not just something that authors need to consider in terms of character. It can inform even the word choices and language of the work.
I am told that the use of the word “focus” to mean concentration – focusing on a problem, focusing one’s energies – is derived from the science of optics and is therefore a fairly modern term. So a Stone Age sorcerer would not focus his magics.
Now, you may be saying, that’s a bit nit-picky. And you are right, it is. There is a counter argument that states to be read and understood, the work needs to be in the language of the modern reader. After all, to be truly authentic, any piece set far enough in the past should be linguistically incomprehensible to all but the most dedicated scholars. And honestly, you want to sell to a wider readership than that.
But the counter argument should not be used as an excuse to avoid any research or effort in fully depicting the perspective (and the world) of the character. It’s more of a balancing act. Accessible language and the portrayal of a foreign or fantastical perspective are not mutually exclusive. It comes down to making writing choices – will this word choice support my story without confusing my reader?
Hey, I’m sorry, but no one ever said writing was going to be easy. But oddly enough, it can sometimes be a whole lot of fun.