Modern vocabulary in fantasy stories

IWSG_NewBadge2016It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. 

I talked about vocabulary before. The topic is of interest to me. Now, I’m returning to it with a new twist. Recently I read someone’s review of one of T. Kingfisher’s stories. It was a good review but it had the following objection: “The humor and writing style is appealing but occasionally too modern for a folk-tale-like novel with a medieval setting. Kingfisher’s characters sometimes use current words or phrases like ‘okay’ and ‘wait ― what?’ that briefly pulled me out of my immersion in the story.”

DomenicoGhirlandaio_speaksI had a similar critique for my novels, but why? It’s a fantasy. Why can’t its characters speak like we do? If they speak like Shakespearean heroes or like Brits in the 19th century, it is OK, right? But they can’t speak like my neighbors? Who made this rule?

I understand this approach for, say, regency romance. I don’t agree 100% but I understand the demand to comply with the language of the times, at least in dialog, to make it sound more authentic. But in fantasy? The characters in all my vaguely-medieval fantasy stories speak modern English, the language I write it. And why not? It’s my fantasy world.

When Charles Perrot or Brothers Grimm wrote their fairy tales, their characters spoke in a language contemporary to the writers. They didn’t make their speech regress a couple hundred years into the past. Why should we, the writers of today, do that?

What is your opinion on the subject?


Lately, the administrators of IWSG came up with a new initiative. Every post for this monthly blog hop would be accompanied with one question we all have to answer.

This month’s question: What was your very first piece of writing as an aspiring writer? Where is it now? Collecting dust or has it been published?

My answer: My first piece of writing was a novel. When I started writing it, I didn’t know anything about writing, so this novel served as a school. Whenever I took a writing class or read a textbook on one of the aspects of writing, I would apply my new learning to this novel. The number of revisions it went through is so high, I lost count.

Eventually, I abandoned it for other projects, some of them published already. My first novel is still sitting on my computer. I might return to it but I’m not sure. I haven’t read it in years. I’m afraid it would be horrible, and there are always some new ideas in my head. Maybe when I run out of ideas…




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11 Responses to Modern vocabulary in fantasy stories

  1. I once had the same thoughts that you do and foolishly had my characters speak as I wanted them to.

    Then I realized that I really, really wanted people to read my books. If there’s something trivial (to me) that I can change that will prevent some of them from being drawn from the story, I’m going to change it.

    My question to you is, “Do you want readers to read your book?” If so, there’s no real other questions. For whatever reason, many fantasy readers don’t like the use of modern language.

  2. Loni Townsend says:

    I write fantasy too, but I have the convenience of having the main character being from our world. So everyone around him uses formal English, and he’s all, “Dude, that frigging sucks.” It makes for fun times when the other people don’t understand his phrasing.

  3. emaginette says:

    The Shakespearean vocabulary can be hard to follow much like accents in dialogue. I’d stick to what you are doing if it was me. 🙂

    I practiced my new writing skills on short stories, figuring I could rework it over and over again.

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  4. patgarcia says:

    I think the choice of vocabulary lies with the author. Unfortunately, there are critics and readers of fantasy who do not prefer modern language. In such cases, maybe the author should write a small foreword in the book to warn the reader that they will incur modern language.
    Shalom aleichem,

  5. Good question. If it’s not set in a specific time and it’s fantasy, why can’t the characters speak how they want?

  6. I think some people consider fantasy to be more medieval and expect more formal language or at least something that relates more to that time period. I will say that modern language in historical fiction would definitely pull me out of a story, but with fantasy, I don’t see why it can’t be however the author wants it to be. You should write whatever feels right to you.

  7. I’m with you and think that when it comes to fantasy, anything goes. It’s fantasy, not reality, after all 🙂

  8. Hi, Olga,

    Intersting question. I have always loved and read fantasy and perhaps for EPIC fantasy, I’d write more formally. But for modern day fantasy or urban fantasy, current language would be more suitable…

  9. Widdershins says:

    I think it depends on how the author sets the stage, the world building. Are they very clearly borrowing for a specific time period in human history, or is it a complete mash-up? 🙂

  10. I think if your story is meant to be historically accurate, so too must the language. But in fantasy, speaking in contemporary language is the better plan. People seeking fantasy often don’t want to struggle through unfamiliar vocabulary and speech patterns unless they’re futuristic.

  11. I read an historical with modern language and it drove me nuts, but fantasy is totally fine.

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