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When writing, I tend to want to use words or phrases that have meaning in the real world, but wouldn't necessarily have meaning in the world in which I'm writing. For example, in a fantasy world, a character can't (metaphorically) "rocket across the room" because there is no such thing as a rocket.

One example that came up recently with someone reviewing my writing was "tug of war". "Do they have tug of war in your setting?" he asked. I was using it as an example of the effect made when one person let go of something another was trying to grab.

The main question here, I think, is this: Should I write as if the story is being translated from some unknown language into English (i.e. I can use words like rocket and tug of war without issue)? Or should I write in the language that the actual characters would be using in the story? The answer would be clear if the story were in first person, but since I'm writing in third person it's a little hazy.

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  • "Rocket" is a word that is older than you think and can be traced back to the 1610s.
    – hszmv
    Aug 1, 2022 at 14:48

9 Answers 9

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Look at Stephen Brust's Taltos series. All fantasy, written in a modern voice.

I think as long as you're not using obvious modern idioms, it's fine to write in a modern voice. If you want to put in the time and effort to use a vernacular, that's fine, but it's more often done poorly than well.

Think about it this way: when you're trying to write idiomatically in a dialect from another period, you're trying to make your reader read it from the perspective of a modern reader. It's not how the people of the time hear the language.

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  • 13
    "Oh peril! Forsooth! How to eradicate this unpleasant circumstance?" "Hath thou googled it?"
    – mootinator
    Nov 23, 2010 at 19:34
  • 7
    @mootinator: Verily! 'Tis most soothish indeed. puts on sunglasses Most soothing. YEAAAAAAAAAAAAA Nov 23, 2010 at 21:19
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    These are valid points. The writing should be clear. But what if you have a character grab tamale for a snack? Or eat some sashimi? Now we've got three particular modern cultures that the character ahs no access to. To me, "tamale" and "sashimi" rip me out of the world in a way that "barbarian" or "assassin" do not. (Both words with very specific cultural etymologies.) I don't know where to draw the line.
    – patrick
    Jun 7, 2011 at 1:10
  • @patrick: the line is fairly simple, to me: if it's part of what's actually happening, then you shouldn't use it. If it's part of the description of what's happening, then it's ok. In the question "rocketing" is just a verb that resonates in the right way ("moving fast") with the reader (presuming the reader is familiar with a society that might use that verb, which >95% of native english readers are), it's not anything to do with a rocket. Tamale and sushimi would be jarring, but then you wouldn't use them to describe something else, would you?
    – naught101
    Aug 1, 2013 at 10:47
  • @patrick, One way to incorporate a tamale or sashimi without the glaring vocabulary issues would be to look at the etymology and decide what is important about that item. Can you find a term that is more common in English, or in a culture on which you are basing your fantasy culture? A tamale is fundamentally similar to a dolma and even sushi, being plant leaves stuffed with starch and protein. English doesn't have a native dish to use as a generic term, so we usually say "stuffed ___ leaves." In your world people might eat "stuffed ____" and have the same effect.
    – wordsworth
    Aug 4, 2019 at 21:39
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One of the most compelling things about fantasy is that reading a work of fantasy transports you to a different world. Not only are you the reader seeing life through another perspective, you are seeing a completely different possibility for what life might be like.

Because the change in possibility is part of what makes fantasy a compelling genre, I would write what would exist in that world (unless you are in the first person of a character from 21st century Earth).

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I think you should avoid using these expressions in dialogue, but it's fine to use them as a narrator. Characters wouldn't say "rocket across the room" but you can; instead of thinking you're translating from ancient English, treat it as your contemporary telling of an ancient story.

Moreover, if you don't use "rocket across the room", you would end up with a somewhat plain narration, or you'd have to invent equivalent expressions in "ancient" English, in which case your reader could have a hard time interpreting your made-up sayings. A good compromise would be to substitute more neutral expressions, such as "flew across the room" as Maulrus suggested.

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Yes, you should avoid using modern words in fantasy because they can break the immersion which readers are experiencing.

That said, many words are not as modern as you might think. "Rockets for military and recreational uses date back to at least 13th century China," so they can exist in medieval-themed fantasy world. Tug of war "was practiced in ancient Egypt and China."

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  • That is a good point, that many words we consider modern actually do have some meaning in earlier cultures. It may even be that in the world you are defining, a "rocket" exists as something that moves fast across a plain surface, as a toy or a weapon, something you might have to clarify. Jun 26, 2012 at 15:18
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As an omniscient third person narrator, I think it's fine to use common English idioms such as "rocket across the room", because it's so common that it doesn't sound any more idiomatic than "flew across the room" or "scrambled across the room".

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If you don't want to invent a whole language up from scratch or go and study ancient English or something like that, you can always write in modern English but let it be implied that the characters are really speaking in their own language, the modern English being just there for the conveniency of the readers.

Depending on your public, it will either not care or avoid your texts. People who are deeply into fantasy might want more "realism" in the sense of more detail about the languages of the fantasy world. People who are casual readers just care about a good story, regardless of the genre.

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Using modern terms generally isn't an issue in fantasy, because people don't want to have to spend their time translating in their head from whatever ancient English or colloquial dialect you made up for your story. However, there are a few things to be avoided. Religious terms, for example, should be avoided unless you're setting your story on Earth. A person in a fantasy world isn't going to say "Jesus Christ" as an exclamation unless they're Christian or live in a world where Christianity is predominant. They wouldn't use proper nouns from our history that we might take for granted unless they lived on earth. A suspect wouldn't be Mirandized unless they lived in America. This can still work, though, and be understandable. In Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series, they say "Crows" instead of "God" as an exclamation. Terms that have a clear historical basis should probably be avoided, but otherwise, there shouldn't be much of an issue.

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It entirely depends on the narrator

The answer will be determined by who the narrator is, and your ability to write very well.

First, every fiction invents new terminology. J. R. R. Tolkien invented 15,493 completely unique terms in his book The Lord of The Rings. "Downing Wall," "Elder Days," "The Fell Winter," "Valier," "Seeing Stones," "Ent," and so many more. In fantasy you are no stranger to inventing new terms and lands and races, using period-correct and region-correct language is handled exactly the same way; allow the context to explain the term. So here are some qualifiers that should guide your answer:

Yes, if your third person narrator is inside the fantasy world.

This is a narrator that maybe you need to use later within the story. Lemony Snicket occasionally interacts with the characters but is generally telling a 3POV narrative. Just remember that whatever "head" you are in as the narrator, that is the "head" your reader is in. So, is your reader literally inside your fantasy world? Then use correct language, like your reviewer commented about. Personally, I would consider a work to be low quality if I were immersed in 16th Century England and my narrator suddenly gave me,

She was floored by this comment. Yes, the dress had a bit too much fabric, and it zapped her when she touched the brass candelabra, but it's not like there was a one-stop shop for girls her size in downtown Knottingham Grove! She gathered up what remained of her pride, adjusted her bra, and trotted out of the room in a huff.

This to me is unreadable. Like Lukas said, it breaks the immersion. I would be instantly transported to my teenage daughter's high school prom, and any visions of dragons or knights or magic have just vanished. In fact, I disagree with Kuwaly on this point: I would spend more time in the dictionary with this than if you had used period-correct language. I would find that "one-stop," "bra," and "zap" didn't exist until the 20th century. For the rest of the book, my mind has only one thought: Who is this narrator who knows so much about modern earth? The story just died for me (and your reviewer).

But Kuwaly is not entirely wrong. If you are too literal in your period-correct language and you have done a poor job of storytelling, then people may spend a great deal of time looking up terms. Your job as the artist (fiction writing is an art), is to find the correct balance to connect to the reader and immerse them in your world. That is a talent you must develop; you can not just Google the answer to this. You will be taking a risk, and you will certainly have some readers who love it and other who lack the patience for it.

I write Steampunk, and this is where my work lives, and a sample of period-correct vernacular I have published is at the end of this post. I have created a custom dictionary for my word processor that will spell-check my paper, to be absolutely certain there are NO terms or idioms in my book which were created after the Victorian era. Words like "computer" or "bra" or "burp" show up as a spelling error. My readers LOVE being transported back in time this way. But Steampunk has a large following already, most of the work of conditioning the audience has already been done. Going back to Edwardian times or further, then the artist has many more challenges and you may want to look at the other options below.

No, if your narrator is from modern Earth.

If your story is from the POV of someone who has traveled to your world from modern earth (or perhaps has lived thousands of years and is telling this story today?), then definitely make the narrator use language consistent with that POV.

No, if your narrator is translating the tale from a foreign language

This is basically what Raskolnikov is suggesting. Let the reader know that your world has a very foreign language, and the narrator is interpreting the tale for the reader. Again, the narrator IS the reader. If your narrator is living today in 2022, use any and all modern terms in your translation. This is the easiest route, because you can speak incompletely familiar jargon, like saying,

"He was killed when a vrolmat came speeding by." (a vrolmat is how the Wulbermen get around, it's basically a car)"

No, if you are using 1st person POV

You already said this, but be aware that there may be occasions where the 1POV narrator is perhaps a time traveler or a traveler from Earth. One perfect example is the character Starlord in Marvel's Guardians of The Galaxy. He originates from 1980's America and tends to throw around a lot of period correct language. It has to be done well, and it has a lot of ways to go wrong. As you already experienced, an audience

Example - Period-correct Victorian steampunk, New terms introduced:

It happened when dad was assigned to a new airship in the Caribbean skies and as always we chose to move our home ourselves instead of carting everything up into an airship, as many Guard families do when they transfer. The desert was endless and mostly flat enough that we easily glided over the terrain. We needed to stay as low as possible to make good time, because the temperatures sometimes dropped below 800º in the hills. Dad said our horses’ turbines could stall at those low temperatures pulling so much weight. Trips like that would require the addition of two more horses, and that would cost quite a bit more for both the engines and in the nitre they would consume on our long trip. So we wound around the hills a bit, and this trip was sufficient time to endure a significant amount of father-son quality time. In Dad’s world, quality time usually means a science lesson.

“Look at that, kids!” said Dad, pointing excitedly out the window. “It’s a dust devil!”

“Ooooh! Cool!” responded my brother, craning his neck.

“Can I see it?” said I, from my seat into which I was lodged, strapped, and embedded like the naval of a sitting fat man.

“All right.” Mom said. She unfastened my prison methodically. She lifted me to the eisenglass and I peered through the pale amber haze at the face of a low precipice, where a crook turned the run of the ledge briefly toward us, and then bent away again to resume it’s parallel path, only a bit closer to our route. In that elbow I saw orange and brown dust dancing rhythmically in a twisting dervish. The dancer was so energetic and excited in its revolutions I thought it must have been the happiest dirt in the world. I saw the elbow of the ledge lacked the striations that ran the length of the face everywhere else, like a stage had been set for the performance. It was dancing in a smooth polished divot in the ground, which I assumed was what kept it from escaping its small platform no matter how ambitious it was in its turns.

“Isn’t that strange?” she inquired, kissing my cheek as she held me up and seemed to breathe a savory parcel of my youth, to store away as if it were a dear letter for use in reminiscing one day long off in her golden years.

I don't know if you like this style, but it reviewed well. I introduced my own term "nitre," and gave exposition that the world is extremely hot as well. I used no modern terminology at all to do this. The storytelling and context should have allowed you to understand that horses are machines, nitre is fuel, and eisenglass is a glass window. They "glided over the terrain" instead of "zipped" or "zoomed." Those modern terms would have destroyed your immersion into the story. Nitre never needs a definition, and I never give one at any point. You learn that horses run on steam turbines, and also, no where in the book do I ever detail how they work, or even how big they are. I am not writing a technical manual, I am telling a story. Good storytelling will allow you to put any unfamiliar language you want in front of your reader without making them stop to look it up.

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Try to avoid them.

Regardless of the narrator, they break the fourth-wall, and make the readers aware that this is fictional.

On the bright side, the more obvious the idiom is modern, the more obvious it will be to you, as to your readers. You can probably get away with "strong suit" even if the world doesn't have cheap paper, which means no playing cards, which means no game of bridge, because most people don't realize where it came from.

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