When writing Fantasy, Historical Novels, or even Science Fiction - language patterns and terms are incredibly different back then (or in the future), then we have now.

How can you properly convey an idea that doesn't exist, for example, the word psychology, in such a setting? For example, a character understands the general gist of it - and you can explain it, but how can you summarize it without having to explain it every time? Should you invent a new word for it - or use the modern rendition of the word?

The same applies to things such as inventions; assume a plot is set in the dark ages, and an invention for communication through the use of 'magic' is created. Should it be referenced to using a new word, or would it be better to use common words such as 'calling' and 'reception' that the reader would understand better, but may not make sense in the world itself?

One reason I have this conundrum is also because our language has an incredibly rich history, with words such as Psychology having links to greek with historical impacts that influenced its reasoning. It seems wrong to have a character suddenly come up with a word that is in our society, but seems to have appeared from no where in theirs.

3 Answers 3


If your narrator is distinct from your protagonists, that is, if your narrator looks back in time and narrates from a perspective contemporary with your readers, you may well use the language of today:

Lord John, although a man of politics and war, was also interested in what later scholars would have called the psychology of his subjects and studied their behavior attentively.

If your narrator is a protagonist or uses a voice contemporary with your story, I would use a brief definition for historically later concepts, such as psychology. For example:

Lord John was interested in the psychology of women.


Lord John liked to study the behavior and emotions of women.

If your book is set after the term was first used in its current meaning, then you may use it. For example, psychology was first used with the meaning "the study of human behavior and emotions" in the late 15th century. As Latin was the lingua franca of learning at that age, you might want to use an (italicized) Latin verson of the term, or the language that your protagonists would have spoken. Here is an example for a 16th century French nobleman:

The Duke of Orleans liked to study the psichologie of his subjects.

For details surrounding inventions the same rule would apply. If the word that we use today (e.g. "calling" someone on the telephone) had the same meaning at the time of your story (e.g. "calling" someone who is far away), then using it will not cause an anachronism:

The mage called the knight and spoke to him through his magic. The knight recieved the mage's call while he was saddling his horse.

The word "reception" on the other hand, did not have the meaning of hearing a call or receiving a letter, because signal theory and the concept of "receiving information" is a 20th century invention, so "reception" smacks of modern times to the reader.

  • That last point was actually fairly useful, I overlooked that the word 'calling' actually has other meanings. (whoops).
    – Kyle Li
    Jan 29, 2017 at 16:20

This is certainly an interesting question.

What many authors get away with

I have read books with a mixture of both things you described. For example:

"My arrow shot like a bullet."

I've forgotten which book it's from, but I read it. Obviously, this is a fantasy book and bullets wouldn't exist. However, the author got away with it. As an avid, voracious fantasy reader, I had no problems with this. I kept reading without really thinking about it.

Other authors have got away with this:

Haven't you heard of the brain-teller come here as of late?

I just made that on the spot. Brain-teller here is (fairly obviously) referring to someone with telepathic capabilities or someone who is able to use strange things to do with the mind. The trick with inventing a new term is the following:

  • Make it fairly obvious what the term means. Create it from words that already exist in the English language.

  • Don't give a definition for the term in your narrative. The definition should be implied or be obvious.

What I mean by that, is don't set aside a few sentences to describe what the term means. That is a mistake, because it diverts the reader's attention from the story and to the word.

What you need to keep in mind

You need to keep in mind that there is a difference between writing a fantasy book, and pretending you speak Old English. Your target audience lives in the present day, so it's best to use terms they will understand. The point of the story is to keep the reader's focus on the story and not the word you're trying to define. That's why I think it's best to use modern language in situations where using more old-style language can't give obvious meaning.


  • If you are deciding to coin a little term, make it obvious what it means either through the term itself or through the context. Basically, don't tell me what the definition is, show it.

    The man started reading that guys mind. "A brain-teller," said Character.

  • Keep in mind that you need to ensure that the reader's attention stays on the story. Remember that while using old-style language can create immersion, it is best not to confuse the reader as you are writing for a modern audience.


Reading a lot of SF, I've seen two broad approaches: introduce new terms sporadically and with enough context that the reader gets it immediately; or, use the new terms as if they were fully understood and just push on. To go with the latter, though, you have to have a hugely compelling narrative and style that grabs the reader and keeps them reading (thinking China Mieville, Ann Leckie) until they've grasped how the new terminology works in the world you've built.

For historical fiction, the only answer is research. You need to know the terms for all the artefacts in your work and get their usage right (historically right or right within the narrative where the historical record is incomplete): thinking here of Patrick O'Brien and Nicola Griffith.

With fantasy, I'd say you can make up what you want pretty much :) kidding! If it is Pratchett style, where you are representing our own world in a fantasy setting, you make up words that are obvious equivalents, like headology for psychology. If more high fantasy, go with introducing terms in context but I'd be pretty circumspect about doing this. Think like a translator: you need to write in English for a modern audience but with enough flavour of the foreign language to make it exotic and believable without it being turgid.

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