Or perhaps I could call it “everything that doesn’t fit in other language rants.” I like this one better, though).
A brief sample first, from Swinburne’s “Laus Veneris,” of what can be done with simple words:
Ah yet would God this flesh of mine might be
Where air might wash and long leaves cover me,
Where tides of grass break into foam of flowers,
Or where the wind’s feet shine along the sea.
1) Unless you really want an excessively formal effect, use contractions in dialogue.
Your characters can be- and probably are, if it’s other-world fantasy- speaking some other language, but you are still rendering it in English that you want to sound natural. Writing dialogue without contractions can sound terminally stupid. Even if you really do intend a formal feel to the scene, a lack of contraction at all sounds unnatural. See:
“Rise!” the king said to Sheana. “You have done well this day, and you will be honored beyond all other heroes in the Kingdom for your deeds.”
“Thank you,” Sheana murmured, while behind her eyes her mind snorted in disdain. Yes, of course I will be honored above all other heroes in the Kingdom. I do not trust his gratitude to last beyond the day. I will be over the horizon with my treasure by the time he has finished speaking, even if he really does not want me to go.
“And now, a feast!” the king cried, and clapped his hands. The minstrels sprang up and began to sing a song of celebration.
Sheana concentrated on making herself heard through it, speaking to Pludgett, the dwarf thief. “Can you move the coins out of their chests by the end of the day? If you cannot, then we may be unable to go anywhere. He has enchanted them mightily.”
Blech. At the very least, Sheana’s thoughts have no interest in making the occasion less formal. “Yes, of course I’ll be honored… I don’t trust his gratitude… I’ll be over the horizon by the time he’s finished speaking, even if he really doesn’t want me to go,” sounds much better.
2) Don’t put your characters in long, involved conversations during the middle of battle and sex.
It’s amazing how many fantasy authors do this. Sex and battle both take a lot of energy, and you’re usually concentrated on doing other things than enchanting the other person with purple poetry. Yet somehow the hero and his worst enemy still manage to rehash each other’s failings while the sword blows are falling fast and furious, and the lover tells his beloved all about her eyes being windows to the soul and how much he loves her while he should have much better uses for his tongue.
This is another part where the dramatic speeches are just going to have to bow to reality. If you want the hero and his enemy to confront each other, save it for the scene where the enemy is defeated and in his cell, or the morning of his execution. If you want lovers to say how much they love each other, it should be before the bedding (that makes it more believable in terms of its being real love anyway).
3) Don’t make your characters sound more educated than their social class would allow.
If your farmer understands every literary reference that your scholarly mage throws around, I’m going to wonder why. If your duke of a typical medieval estate knows everything about legumes when he’s not a farmer himself, I’m going to wonder why.
This is where fantasy authors, I think, fall prey to the temptation to speed up their hero’s education (this class slippage most often happens to the hero). They consider that showing him training or learning anything is boring, so they make some weak excuse like, “Well, his father was a great farmer, and he learned from that,” or “There were these magic books in an old abandoned farmhouse.” Above all, they don’t seem to want him to have any moments of awkwardness fitting in with the people who come to take him on the quest or to the big city. This is the same “reasoning” behind making teenagers who only just started training geniuses at swordplay, and it sucks for all the same reasons.
If your fantasy world is hierarchical, as most are, then make sure the hero fits in with his class. And that does include language.
4) Don’t overdo making your protagonist part of his class, either.
This is where I return to that battered, beloved example of badness, Robert Jordan. He hit upon the idea that one way to characterize a woman who came from a fishing family was to make her think and speak exclusively in fish metaphors. This worked for about ten pages.
No one character should think only in terms of one thing. Even living in a fishing village, someone will see the faces of other people and the water and the trees (if it’s a river) or the seabirds (if it’s an ocean). Either of those would provide a wider ground for metaphor, an acceptable ground. Thinking “Her face swelled up and turned red, just like Old Man Hoskins’s when he got stung by bees” or “She felt sick, like the time she’d gone out riding the waves before a storm in just a little raft” is fine. But thinking exclusively in terms of fish, fish, fish, or vegetables, vegetables, vegetables if she’s from a farming community, will make your heroine sound as if she really should have stayed home and tended to the fish or vegetables she loves so much.
Keep the other aspects of the protagonist’s background in mind, too. Another reason this kind of thing didn’t work with Robert Jordan’s character is that she had been the leader of the most powerful group of mages in the world for years, and left her fishing village as a young child to start training with these mages. It was silly to suppose she would think exclusively in terms of fish when she’d spent the majority of her life away from the fishing village.
5) Watch your vocabulary when writing certain characters.
There’s a temptation to make all the fantasy characters understand all the words an author uses, similar to the one to allow the hero a wider knowledge base he should have. Thus orphan children from the streets of the city will know what “argent” means, while farmers who have lived all their life in the country will use only the words the hero might know in relation to the process of farming. (On at least one memorable occasion in an amateur fantasy story I read, the author was not apparently sure what a plow was, and had both the farmer and the hero use “horse-thing”).
Again, remember that you’re translating this fantasy speech into English. It’s great if you know all the modes of formal address and so on in your language, but not having a similar grasp of the English levels of formality can and will hurt you. Listen closely to the way people speak around you. Read all the time, and pay attention to the dialogue. A king, assuming he uses the expression, is more likely to say “I wish to purchase two sheep” rather than “I wanna buy a couple.” An upper-class child would be more likely to “ascend the stairs,” a lower-class child to “climb” them. (This doesn’t mean the upper-class child wouldn’t also know climb, but what the hell is ascend doing in a peasant child’s vocabulary?)
It may help to study the history of English, too. Quite often the words we think of as less formal, like “climb,” came from Anglo-Saxon, while the more formal ones, like “ascend,” came from French or Latin. It’s not an infallible guide, but it can help save you from obvious screw-ups.
6) Don’t overdo dialect.
Some readers may be able to get into it, but others assuredly won’t. If you scan the Amazon reviews for fantasy books that use dialect extensively, you’re sure to run across a few complaints about it, even negative reviews from people who couldn’t keep reading because of it. A few times in one character’s speech is often okay, but having it happen all the time gets intimidating- and annoying.
Other reasons not to use a lot of dialect:
a) If the dialect is the standard speech of the fantasy country or region, such that everyone speaks it, why not represent it by standard English anyway?
b) Authors often make mistakes in dialect. They’ll use “ye” at one point and “you” at another, or represent “the” as sometimes “the” and sometimes “thee” and sometimes “thae.”
c) It makes the parts of the book that are not in dialect more jarring by contrast. The characters often speak in dialect and think in perfect standard English. The narrator does standard English, too, which doesn’t make sense if the whole book is supposed to be firmly through the characters’ eyes.
Just a little list of things I think should be checked more often.