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.


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.

  • 12
    "Oh peril! Forsooth! How to eradicate this unpleasant circumstance?" "Hath thou googled it?"
    – mootinator
    Nov 23 '10 at 19:34
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    @mootinator: Verily! 'Tis most soothish indeed. puts on sunglasses Most soothing. YEAAAAAAAAAAAAA Nov 23 '10 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 '11 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 '13 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 '19 at 21:39

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).


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.


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".


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.


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.


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."

  • 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 '12 at 15:18

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