Fantasy dialogue is reliably awful for good reason: it lacks the rootedness derived from a real time and place. So writers, directors, and actors default to the stilted evocation of the same place and time.
“The same wind that seeks to blow out a fire may also cause it to spread.”
“There can be no trust between hammer and rock. Eventually one or the other must surely break.”
“For, unlike the stone, her gaze is not downward, but up.“
Behold, some examples of dialogue from the new Amazon Prime series The Rings of Power.
Rings of Power is an expansive, gorgeous show that rewrites the history of the series. This is not a review of that show. There have been enough reviews of it already, and review bombs, to fill an entire critical canon.
This is a specific critique of a specific part of the show that represents a critical problem in almost all fantasy writing.
With very few exceptions, fantasy dialogue is terrible.
It’s a pernicious issue that plagues fantasy in almost every single medium. Even fantasy giants like George R. R. Martin and Ursula K. LeGuin struggle to not fall into clichés in dialogue. At its best, it’s passable. At its worst, every line feels like a proverb, divorced from reality.
One of the few exceptions is the writing of Glen Cook, and for a specific reason.
Cook’s best-known work, The Black Company, which inspired the men on the Wall in Game of Thrones, is based on his real-life experiences. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Cook strove to write his characters like the soldiers he knew. He rarely even tries to place them within the context of the world he writes about. He wants them to sound like real-life people he’s met.
And this tugs at the main issue with all fantasy dialogue.
It’s not based in reality.
Unreal worlds make for unreal talk
As we’ve discussed, fantasy writers thrive in building imagined worlds. Steven Erikson revels in creating entire ecosystems, Brandon Sanderson has entire lecture series on the subject. Made-up economies, political parties, histories. The breadth and depth of these imagined worlds is what readers come to fantasy for.
But a way of speaking seems to be out of reach for almost every fantasy writer. And this makes sense. It’s out of the reach of most writers of other genres as well.
Dialogue is one of the most personal skills, specific to every writer. You have an ear for it or you don’t. Much of it depends on listening to real conversations and understanding their tempo and structure. It’s also specific to place and time. It’s why so many of Stephen King’s characters sound like they grew up in Maine in the 1950s.
Given the place-rootedness of speech, how do you create a way of speaking if the place those people are from doesn’t exist?
Science fiction can run into similar problems. But even in that genre, the basis of place exists, just maybe not in the same time period.
What reference does fantasy dialogue have to draw from?
For most fantasy writers, the answer is somewhere in Europe in the Middle Ages.
The “why” is usually down to default. Most historical productions in Western culture default to English accents where everyone sounds like they studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (often because they did). Many Americans’ cultural heritage comes from the UK, so mythic origins for fantasy draw heavily from English history and culture. Specifically, Shakespeare.
The Shakespearean default
As the most readily-available reference, fantasy defaults to Shakespeare. And as I’ve discussed before, Shakespeare is not an easy bar to reach. Not only do fantasy writers try to mimic the most lyrically-dense dialogue writer in the English language, they try to do it agnostic of the time and place he came from.
Why should someone from the island nation of Numenor sound like they’re constantly speaking in Shakespearean symbolism?
In a genre rife with creativity, too many writers choose the safe default to how fantasy characters are supposed to sound. It’s a crutch because that’s how it’s been done for so long—and it’s a massive missed opportunity.
But the problem goes even deeper.
Fantasy prose can world-build in long passages outside of dialogue. It can put quotes at the start of chapters from characters to set up backstory, create long prologues to explain entire centuries of made-up history.
Even fantasy video games have more opportunities for worldbuilding. Item descriptions, texts found in-world, and NPC dialogue trees all illuminate details the creators want you to know.
Fantasy films and TV shows have two ways of showing their worldbuilding: visuals and dialogue. And there are only so many sweeping shots of CGI cities that can explain Silmarillion-sized backstory.
So many lines in The Rings of Power are heavy with attempts to show off how much work they’ve done to build a world that is not only faithful to the source material but is trying to pave its own path.
If it doesn’t sound portentous or proverbial, it’s filled with historical references to characters, events, and deities. No characters can say what they mean to each other without also mentioning three wars that occurred in the previous century or a God that will only mean something to people who’ve read The Silmarillion.
Characters will say Not by the pearls of Lady Thecla’s necklace on her dragon throne shall I do so when “No, thank you” would do.
What would be lost if this was pared down and the epic references dropped? In the case of The Rings of Power, a significant amount of fan service.
There is so much expectation from a rabid fanbase to remain loyal to the worlds of Tolkien that the writers seem too eager to get ahead of them by teasing as many threads as they can pull.
Based on the reaction, maybe there was no pleasing those fans.
Leaner dialogue would’ve allowed for characters to connect with each other more, actually speaking to each other instead of past each other.
Which gets to the final issue with The Rings of Power and almost all filmed fantasy: The acting struggles to get out the words.
So many of the scenes have very talented actors trying desperately to put on airs of importance and get through paragraphs of worldbuilding when they should be trying to speak in the character’s voice. And, according to the laws of fantasy dialogue, that voice would sound British.
HBO’s stunning limited series Chernobyl seemingly solved the issue: Have the actors speak in their own accents.
The creators discussed the decision and said that it allowed the actors to focus more on the emotion. And it worked. English accents in what appears to be a costume drama brings with it a certain air. It signals to actors that they are to act as if they’re in a costume drama. The air of Rings of Power, and almost all filmed fantasy, is stilted.
Allowing actors to use their own accents isn’t novel to fantasy. One of the most fun, freewheeling fantasy stories put to film, Willow, had Val Kilmer talking like Val Kilmer. And it worked. It brings a spoken reality to a world that doesn’t really exist.
The Rings of Power has room to grow. The realm of filmed fantasy is not as deep as it seems. It’s an expensive genre to film, and with a greater appetite for fantasy stories since Game of the Thrones, there is a chance for it to mature. But no matter how beautiful the show looks, it’s impossible to get over how it sounds.