Brave New Worlds

When you’ve spent a long time precisely constructing a mythical world as a backdrop for your fantasy or science fiction novel, make sure you don’t fall into the trap of allowing the real world to intrude.

Popular fiction set in the real world is full of cultural references – what the characters say, how they say it, the slang terms they use, even their names, are all rooted in the culture and traditions of the real world. Your characters might talk about recent events in soapland or the escapades of the latest reality television victims. They might sing snatches of popular songs or recite poetry. They might refer to historical or fictional figures; they may even be named after one of them. This is fine, because your characters inhabit the real world, even though they are playing out an imaginary story within it.

But in fantasy and science fiction, the carefully constructed edifice of your imaginary world will be at risk the moment one of your characters makes a casual reference to ‘this brave new world’. This phrase is often used as a perfectly acceptable description of imagined worlds, planets and dimensions, but it actually grounds the story firmly in the real world. The line is from ‘The Tempest’ and using it suggests that William Shakespeare also exists in your imaginary world. Your constant reader might pick up on this and wonder how old Will fits into the landscape of the planet 2,000 light years away from earth. Here are some more quotes from Shakespeare that are in everyday use and should be avoided in you fantasy world:

  • Crack of doom
  • Bated breath
  • Itching palm
  • Winter of discontent
  • Off with his head
  • When shall we three meet again?

Similarly, many familiar phrases in common usage, such as ‘the apple of his eye’ are from the Bible. Using them assumes the presence of religion in your fantasy world. You may have already devised a belief system for your fantasy realm and the introduction of Christianity, Judaism and even Islam might not fit well with your readers’ expectations. Some more Biblical phrases you might want to avoid:

  • Through a glass darkly
  • Lamb to the slaughter
  • Turn the other cheek
  • Reap the whirlwind
  • The truth will set you free
  • Tomorrow will look after itself

References to real world culture – literature, music, arts, cinema, television, or religion – the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, the Rubaiyat of Omar Kyam, Hymns Ancient and Modern, the Book of Common Prayer, should all be treated with caution. They will cause problems in your invented world by pulling your readers out of the fantasy and into the real world. Time to sharpen your ears to the historical quotation.


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