Reading Kristin Cashore’s article, “Hot Dog, Katsa!” in the Jan/Feb 2010 Horn Book (first issue entirely in color!) reminded me why I admire good fantasy writers so much! It also made me search online and re-read two fantastic articles that also discuss fantasy world building and what makes Good fantasy stories outstanding (or what makes them less so.) These two articles are Sam Swope’s review in the New York Times: Moonlighting (partially about fantasy books but the focus is on adult writers writing for children) and Jane Langton’s The Weak Place in the Cloth: A Study of Fantasy for Children from the October 1973 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
I am not embarrassed to report that tears rushed into my eyes as I was moved by some of these authors’ (all fantasy world building masters themselves) insights. I won’t repeat everything they say here — please please read their articles. In essence, all three agree that:
just because a writer can dream up a whole lot of fantastic situations, weird creatures, and unusual characters does not make this writer a good fantasy storyteller. In fact, without the harnessing power of logic, realism, and careful planning — in short, the self-editing process — the work could turn out to be a huge and unconvincing mess.
In Cashore’s article, she also specifically points out the importance of selecting appropriate words in keeping with the setting of the fantasy world. As the title indicates, you don’t say, “Hot dog, Katsa!” because it takes the reader out of the world of vaguely medieval setting (in her book Graceling) and shatters the otherwise solidly constructed illusion of a magical realm that could have actually existed.
I think that is why I felt so jarred when encountering the word “okay” on page 4 in the 2010 Newbery Honor title Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. This book is set in a mythical, undetermined, but quite solidly yesteryear China. There is no usage of electricity or references of modern day conveniences. Instead, one meets dragons, talking gold fish, the Goddess of Heaven, and many other fanciful characters while the people work the earth and walk long ways on foot and push carts to sell their goods. So, seeing a highly Americanized and fairly contemporary word like “okay” used in the dialog between the main character and her father made me cringe.
As a lover of fantasy, I have formed certain ideas. I hold quite tightly a set of internalized rules. In short, I ask a lot of the storytellers. I want them to be versed in the fundamental requirements of good fantasy world building as presented in the articles cited above. Or, at least, as mentioned in Cashore’s article, I want them to let their characters talk in the “right” language, with the “right” tone. Of course, what is right or what is not right might vary from one reader to the next in certain cases. But, there is a general sense of the time and place where people talk a certain way which is not so hard to pin down. In the case of Minli and her father (Ba,) OKAY is simply Not OK.
Of course, this is not the only book where OK or Okay are used casually by authors when their characters should have no inkling of what this word might mean. (According to the OED, the expression “OK” meaning “all correct, all right” did not appear until early 19th century USA.)
So, I am making a fairly personal and weak plea to authors of fantasy novels — unless the world you have built is firmed anchored in a post-early-19th century world (like the one in Percy Jackson and the Olympians,) would it be possible to curb your urge to use OK and find another expression more in keeping with the setting of your world?