Have you ever read a novel based in a historical period or watched a film set in times gone by, and come across something that seemed a bit out of place? Something that didn’t belong, that made you suddenly very aware that you weren’t living in the turn of the 19th century but were in fact sitting in your pyjamas enjoying a work of fiction? If so, you’ve seen anachronism at work.
Anachronisms can sneak into our writing very easily, and we might not even realize it. So how do we avoid anachronism in our own stories? And can anachronism ever not be a bad thing? Let’s find out together.
What is an anachronism in literature?
Anachronism comes from the Greek word anachronous, which means “against time.” Therefore, an anachronism is something from the wrong time period that goes against the time in which your story is set.
This might be something like having your eighteenth-century French courtesan put on lipstick (lipstick only existed after 1884), having a a 1940s housewife cook dinner for her family with a microwave (microwaves weren’t used domestically until 1955), or having your characters living in 1990 and communicating by videoconference (personal computers were around in 1984, but videoconferencing didn’t start developing until the early 2000s).
Unintentional anachronisms like these are like road bumps in your story; they’ll suddenly jolt your reader out of the action, making them uncomfortably aware of their surroundings. They will also reflect badly on you, the writer, as someone who cut corners and wasn’t thorough enough in your research of your chosen historical periods. The good news is that anachronisms are easy enough to avoid as long as you’re mindful and organized in your work.
Can anachronism ever be useful in writing?
Are anachronisms are always a bad thing? Can they ever be used to positive effect?
Like all “rules” of creative writing, there’s room for flexibility once you understand the rule and why it exists in the first place. While unintentional anachronism will nearly always work against your story, you can sometimes use deliberate anachronism as a literary device to add humor, make historical events more accessible, or for stylistic effect.
For example, intentional anachronisms are used generously and brazenly in literary memes, such as the ones based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that often circulate. They use contemporary colloquialisms to tell a beloved story in a new way.
Unlike unintentional anachronisms, these discrepancies in time don’t hide between the layers of the story; nobody who reads them thinks that Mr. Bingley ever actually texted Jane Bennet saying, “U up?”. But this impossible anachronism does something very important: it makes a story full of antiquated ideas and occasionally archaic language relevant in the modern world.
Another famous example in popular culture is the TV series “The Flintstones,” about a “modern stone-age family”—an anachronistic adjective, since “modern” didn’t even exist in the stone age! This show uses anachronistic chronology in a fun way.
This type of intentional anachronism is very often used in children’s literature. It makes it easier for them to follow and absorb the different historical periods. For example, if you were to write a children’s story about knights going on a quest in medieval times, you probably wouldn’t portray their manner of speech in an entirely historically accurate way—this would be difficult for your target audience to follow, and they would quickly lose interest.
You can see this kind of anachronism in action in historical movies such as Brave and How to Train Your Dragon, where the characters talk in a very modern way in order to feel more real and present to the young viewers.
You can also use intentional anachronisms in adult writing if you’re crafting an alternative history, such as the one in Front Lines by Michael Grant. This book reimagines World War II with mixed-gender armies. These stories very intentionally add a new, historically inaccurate idea and other anachronisms in order to communicate a broader theme. You can use a large anachronistic idea like this one to build a unique and powerful historical context for your story.
4 types of anachronism in storytelling
Now that we know a little bit more about what anachronism is, let’s look at the four types of anachronisms that can come up in your story.
Parachronism refers to anything that’s outside of general use within a given time period. For example, someone in contemporary times using a butter churn to make butter by hand, or a modern-day person using slang from the 1950s. Parachronisms in stories aren’t impossible things—they can be used effectively to illustrate something about character, setting, or even plot—but they need to be used with intention.
If you’re writing a story set in the 1940s and accidentally have your character use slang from the 1920s because you don’t know the difference, for example, that’s unintentional parachronism that will damage your story. If, on the other hand, your 1940s character is using 1920s slang because they’re secretly a ghost who died twenty years earlier, and you’re using their language as a way to hint at a secret in your plot, that’s parachronism used intentionally and effectively.
Closely related is prochronism, which is anything so out of place in its time period that it couldn’t be possible. This is what we usually think of as anachronism in writing. Prochronisms are things like showing someone waiting at a traffic light in an era before traffic lights were invented, shopping in Paris with euros while France was still using francs, or taking the underground train through London on a line that wasn’t added until much later.
These are things that cannot exist in your story without rewriting history entirely. This is why it’s so important to thoroughly research every aspect of your work and to ask questions about anything you’re not sure of, or even things you think you know (Can your Londoners be riding the tube in 1920? Absolutely. Can they be riding the Jubilee line? Not until 1979).
3. Cultural anachronism
Also called “behavioral anachronism,” cultural anachronism is anything that seems unrealistic within its time period, but not enough to say that it could never happen. These are things like women in professions where women weren’t generally welcome, or attitudes towards certain political and cultural ideas that reflect the way we see them today, rather than how they were viewed historically.
Cultural anachronism is a difficult one to navigate for two reasons: Firstly, we’re inevitably bringing our own cultures and understandings of the world into our writing, and it can be difficult to separate that from the world of our story. Secondly, true historical accuracy can often be hurtful or even damaging to our readers.
The challenge in writing historical fiction is creating a realistic view of your story’s time without further perpetuating the harm that those snapshots of history have done.
4. False anachronism
Anachronisms like this are sometimes called “The Tiffany Problem,” isn’t a real anachronism at all—it’s what happens when something seems out of place in your story, but isn’t. It comes from the name Tiffany, which stems from the Greek Theophania and was a very common name for women in medieval times. This means that if you want to write a novel set in the 12th century and name your heroine Tiffany, it would be 100% historically accurate.
So what’s the problem? Nobody would believe it.
“But,” I hear you crying to the heavens, “there were action figures and sports sponsorships in ancient Greece! I checked!”
So here’s the thing. Does that mean your reference doesn’t belong in your story? No. Have you made a mistake in your writing? Also no. Is this something that isn’t perfectly acceptable in your fictional world? Again, no. But here’s the important question: does it pull your reader out of your story?
If you show your Edwardian-era character using dental floss, and your reader thinks that doesn’t sound quite right so they go over to Google and look up when dental floss was invented, and they learn that people in Edwardian times were in fact using dental floss and you were right and they were wrong, something really big has happened in this moment: the reader has put down your book. They’ve put it down and walked away from your story.
As a writer, this is one of those moments where you’re just going to have to pick your battles. Thorough research is a wonderful tool for ensuring the realism in your story world, but at the end of the day, remember that your story isn’t there to honour the research—it’s there to honour your reader.
3 examples of anachronism in literature
Here are a few places in literature and popular culture where anachronisms have appeared, intentionally and unintentionally.
1. William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
Shakespeare was guilty of anachronism often in his work. In the play Julius Caesar, Brutus says, “Peace! Count the clock,” and Cassius responds, “The clock has stricken three.” Clocks were common in William Shakespeare’s time, but hadn’t yet been invented in Caesar’s. This was likely an unintentional anachronism that happened because Shakespeare wasn’t able to jump on the internet and find out when exactly clocks had been invented.
In the same play, more examples of anachronism happen in the line, “he plucked me open his doublet and offered them his throat to cut.” Men in Shakespeare’s time wore doublets, but not men in Caesar’s.
2. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Another anachronism example happens in Hamlet when Claudius says, “In going back to school in Wittenberg,” a reference to the prestigious Danish University of Wittenberg which still exists today. The problem is that Wittenberg wasn’t founded until a century after Hamlet’s story takes place.
It’s unclear if this anachronism was unintentional or not; while it’s possible that Shakespeare was unsure of the famous university’s origins, it’s also possible that he chose to ignore them in favor of using a name that the audience would surely recognize. This communicates the character’s intellect and worldly knowledge.
3. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Mark Twain’s famous story is an entire study in intentional anachronisms, in which an American man finds himself thrown through time and space into King Arthur’s time. Twain used the juxtaposition between the old and the new, including values, superstitions, religion, and monarchy, to show readers these ideas in a new way.
This is an example in which anachronism can be used to create an alternative history and effectively communicate themes and ideas.
3 ways to avoid anachronism in your story
Although anachronisms can be useful in certain contexts, it’s anachronism used unintentionally that really has the power to sink your story and shatter the bond between you and your readers. Here are some things to keep in mind as you craft your work.
1. Research obsessively
Do everything you can to immerse yourself in the time period of your story’s world. We’re blessed to live in a world where knowledge about just about everything is right at our fingertips—use it.
Find out where your characters would have lived, what they ate, what modes of travel they used, what political systems were in place, how basic needs like plumbing and heating and garbage disposal all worked, what the attitudes were to people across classes and cultures, what they did for entertainment, and any other detail that catches your attention.
Not every one of these details needs to make it into the final story, but by having a thorough understanding of the mechanics of your character’s world, you’ll be able to craft a complete and convincing picture of it for your readers.
2. Read your chosen genre
Even though your story is unique, the path you’re walking is not a new one. Many, many stories and novels have been written across all time periods and all genres, which means that a substantial amount of work on the subject has already been done. While a story shouldn’t be taken as an academic study on a particular time period, it’ll give you a sense of what has worked in the past when it comes to telling a believable story.
If you’re setting your novel in an earlier time, Try reading other books set in your chosen time period and make note of how the authors describe the settings, the clothes, any major events that might be impacting the story’s world, and any societal stigmas or expectations that are playing a part in the character’s choices.
Your characters won’t be the same as another writer’s, but very likely they’ll be coming up against similar obstacles and finding ways around them in a similar environment. You can use these stories as part of your research to help familiarise yourself with the time period and avoid things that might be considered anachronistic.
3. Invite feedback
No matter how much research we do, we can’t always catch everything or know how things are going to land with our readers. This is why it’s essential to get constructive feedback from other readers and writers who might know more about your chosen time period than you do, or might have lived in it, or might just be a good representation of your target audience.
Try and find some supportive first readers who can point out any areas that seem out of place in the time period or any questions they might have. This way you can address any prickly places before sending your story out into the world.
Immerse your readers by keeping anachronism at bay
Anachronism is a tricky thing to master in writing, and it’s one of the worst pitfalls that your story can fall into. But by paying attention during the writing process, taking the time to understand the world of your story, and inviting a little outside help, you can make sure that your readers stay immersed in your world and the story that you’re telling.