Have you ever been watching a film and had to go back a few seconds because something seemed incredibly out of place? Maybe there was a laptop in the background of a historical drama, or a medieval character was wearing a digital watch. Whatever it was, it simply didn’t fit. An anachronism can be found throughout literature, film, and art. Some are more intentional than others, so we’re here to guide you through the dos and don’ts of adding anachronisms to your own work.
What Is an Anachronism?
Let’s start with a quick anachronism definition. Anachronisms are all about people, events, or objects being in the wrong chronology, or time period. The bigger the time gap, the more obvious the anachronism becomes.
You’ll typically see anachronisms between an object and a setting or an object and a person. For example, a painting of a 17th century woman holding a cellphone is an anachronism, because cell phones weren’t around in the 1600s!
Examples of Anachronisms
William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
When it comes to anachronism examples, the juxtaposition of old and new in the same setting isn’t a modern phenomena. Shakespeare makes several anachronistic references in his writing, and one of the most obvious is in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar.
In the play, both Brutus and Cassius make reference to clocks and the striking of the hour, yet clocks were not a feature of Roman society. In fact, it would be nearly 1,500 years from the days of Caesar until the first mechanical clock was invented.
While there are arguably a number of inaccuracies in the famous Mel Gibson film, there is one that stands out to anyone with a knowledge of Scottish history. Braveheart is set in the late 1200s, and for most of the movie, the male characters are seen wearing traditional Scottish kilts. Unfortunately, these garments weren’t actually introduced until the 1700s—500 years after the events of Braveheart take place!
Some anachronisms are intentional choices made by the writer or director in order to shock the audience or make them laugh. Austin Powers is a great example of this technique in action.
Powers was cryogenically frozen in the 1960s and brought back to life in the future. When he wakes up, he uses common ’60s slang and wears outfits common in the era. His actions and mannerisms add a comedic element to the plot when posed against the 1990s setting of the film. It’s all so out of place, you can’t help but laugh!
Hone Your Craft in Fewer Words
Writing Character-Driven Short Stories
Types of Anachronism
Many of the anachronism examples we’re familiar with are parachronism. Even though an object or person is out of place, it’s not totally impossible for them to exist.
For example, a character in a movie set in the early 2000s listening to music from the 1920s on an iPod, or a modern businessman dressed in a three-piece Victorian suit would be parachronistic. It’s certainly something that could happen, but it’s just enough out of place, you might just look twice.
The other most common type of anachronism is prochronism, or impossible anachronism. A prochronism occurs when an object or idea shows up in a situation that is absolutely impossible because the thing hasn’t even been invented yet.
Take the final season of Game of Thrones. A coffee cup from a well-known modern coffee chain was famously left on a table in the background of a scene during filming—an abnormality eagle-eyed fans were quick to point out. Coffee cups from today’s society would never have existed in Game of Thrones’ medieval-inspired setting.
Cultural or Behavioral Anachronism
Rather than objects appearing where they shouldn’t, this type of anachronism is more about actions and societal norms. For instance, a person in the 21st century having a conversation entirely in Latin or the recent “cottagecore” trend (a subculture dedicated to swapping modern lives with romanticized rural traditions) would be cultural anachronisms.
Purposefully adding anachronisms to a story or piece of art can create a fascinating juxtaposition that adds new dimensions to what you’re making. Think of someone in today’s society writing letters with a quill and ink. Strange, yet totally possible!
These types of anachronisms are often done for one of several reasons: comedy, shock, or to emphasize something in particular about a character’s personality.
Anachronistic errors, where something is unintentionally out of place, usually come from lack of thorough research or simply a mistake—as was the case in Game of Thrones. Many unintentional anachronisms aren’t noticed by the average viewer, but for those who do spot them, the anachronism can completely change their view of the story.
Anachronism in Satire
Satire is used to exaggerate, expose, or add humor to a piece of writing or visual art. It’s most commonly found in political or social commentary, which makes it a prime target for anachronistic language.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
Twain uses this time-travel story as a way to look at issues in the monarchy and feudalism from a humorous perspective. The hero is a 19th century New Englander named Hank Morgan, who finds himself in the court of King Arther in the 6th century. Throughout the story, Morgan has to use his knowledge of yet-unlived-history to navigate his new surroundings.
The comedic Mel Brooks movie is one of the best examples of satirical discussion around race, religion, and politics. It’s full of intentional anachronisms, like the 19th-century cowboys breaking down a wall to find themselves in the middle of a 1950s Hollywood dance production. While it doesn’t seem to make any sense at first glance, it’s actually a commentary on the fakeness of Hollywood and the movie industry.
Anachronism in Sci-Fi
Although sci-fi is set in the future, there are still plenty of anachronisms to be found. Objects, events, and people that don’t quite fit into the setting become even more apparent as the films and books get older, and we enter the years the producers and authors once saw as a long way off!
The 1987 cult classic movie predicted that by 2029, robots would be driving cars in the same way humans do. Yet, with the rise of autonomous and self-driving cars in 2022, it’s highly unlikely that at the end of the decade, you’ll jump in a taxi and a robot will be behind the wheel. Instead of robots driving cars, the cars will in fact be robots themselves!
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Written in the early 1990s, several episodes of Star Trek look into the future at life in 2024. Now that we’re only a couple of years away, it’s easy to see where their predictions have become anachronisms, especially when it comes to technology.
In these episodes, there are no flat screen computers or smartphones and no social media or internet connectivity between characters. While it’s certainly not the writers’ fault they couldn’t predict the future, we can now see obvious errors when comparing it to reality.
Does This Really Belong Here?
As a writer, how you choose to tell your story is completely up to you, including whether or not to use anachronisms. If you do, be sure they add something extra to your story, like humor, suspense, or social commentary for your audience. It’s easy for anachronisms to nudge an audience off track and distract them from the rest of the narrative, so pick your moments carefully and intentionally.
Add Anachronisms to Your Comedic Writing
Humor Writing: Write Funny for the Internet