Well, let’s try something a little different this time. This isn’t a rant about language in fantasy worlds (which I already did), but the language used to write fantasy itself.
Highly personal, this time, even more so than usual. These are the phrases that make me wince and cringe when I come across them in fantasy set in other worlds, and some likely replacements. (For the record: I’ve used them too, but I’ve tried to cut them out more and more, and they make me cringe when I read my old writing just as badly as when I read them in others’).
This shows up far too often in fantasies that are supposed to be, at best, several centuries behind the nineteenth-century United States where it came to life, and usually entirely different worlds. It jolts me right out of the story and back into my own reality, not only thanks to modern birth but to modern flavor.
Good replacements for it: I think “very well,” “yes,” or a nod are the best. “All right” is possible, but problematic; I still think this has a too casual, too modern flair. Not all fantasy language has to be formal—think of the speech of the lower classes and the streets—but it should still rely on a different slang and approach than modern Earth. What about threats being casual, instead of acknowledgment?
Father Figure, Psyche, Emotionalism.
These ruin the fantasy story’s flavor by being too technical and scientific. Also, most of the time there’s an easy replacement that would fit in far better with the way the fantasy society views the matter. Why not “foster father” or even just “father” instead of “father figure?” What about “emotions” instead of “emotionalism,” or “feelings?” What about “mind” instead of “psyche?” It jolts me badly to hear the villain declare, “This has taken a toll on my enemy’s psyche.” Surely the villain, who is usually displayed as not the brightest thing on the planet, has no business talking this way.
Oh, and that’s another one.
In the phrases “man (or woman) of business,” this doesn’t shock me so much. But:
“Where were you last night?” Alestra’s mother called as she stormed up the stairs. “We wanted you to help birth the foal!”
“That’s none of your business!” Alestra spat.
It makes even less sense in a society that doesn’t really conduct business as we understand it, such as a medieval village with a barter economy. The activity that’s the basis for the metaphor has to develop before the metaphor can.
Likely replacements: “I don’t see why that concerns you,” “That’s none of your concern,” “Don’t worry about it,” or silence.
“In a Minute,” “In a Second,” & Equivalents.
Unless your fantasy world is more magically or technologically advanced than is usually the case, its people probably won’t divide time into such small increments. An hour is more likely, or at best “until the clock changes” if they measure time by clocks. Times marked by things no one can mistake, like moonrise, are even better. “In ten minutes” will only work if your people have: a) a clearly delineated way of dividing time into minutes, b) an agreement on that time even across different societies and cultures, and c) a way of referring to a clock or similar instrument as they get ready to ride off on the grand adventure.
Suggested replacements: “In a short time” or the ones given above.
This is one that shows up in bad fantasy to describe, say, how fast a dragon flies. What isn’t explained is how everyone in the fantasy world knows about the sound barrier, can conceive of something breaking it, and knows what happens when something does.
Suggested replacements: If you really want to have a sonic boom, just don’t give it the same name; “an extremely loud noise” can suggest to your modern readers what’s going on without disrupting your peasants’ lives. Otherwise, I would suggest leaving it out. Lots of good fantasies have convinced me of how fast dragons fly without resorting to modern terminology.
This developed exclusively as a metaphor for firing guns, then spread to arrows. With a gun, it makes sense; gunpowder can explode, and fire is involved. For arrows, it makes not the least metaphorical sense. If you use it in a fantasy world where guns haven’t developed and people have no real reason to associate fire with the action of letting missiles go, then it’s transplantation of a modern idea into the fantasy world again.
Suggested replacements: “shoot” is the older word, and conveys the same sense without the same metaphorical implications.
Boycott, Herculean, Titanic, and other such words.
The main problem is that all these words are named after people and mythological figures who probably don’t exist in your world. The only exceptions are fantasies which share their mythologies or histories with Earth’s pretty exactly.
Suggested replacements: Usually there’s a simpler English word, such as “mighty” for Herculean or “enormous” for titanic, that gets the meaning across. It may not convey exactly the same meaning, but it gets you around having to explain how your people know about boycotts or titans.
“But you’re just a girl!” and other pseudofeminist phrases.
Just about every book with a female character who wants to do something usually reserved for boys has at least one conversation like this, often ending with “I’ll show them! I’ll show them all!” or the equivalent. Boring by now, really trite, and not true to the way that women and men in medieval societies (the closest model to a lot of fantasy) talked about gender. There, it was often cloaked in metaphors and referred to religion and not to girls at all (the word “girl” acquired its modern meaning only slowly).
Suggested replacement: Cut the conversation out. Find some way to write feminist fantasy without transporting cliched language back in time.
“Avaunt thee, foul beast!” and similar terms in combat.
This is often intended to sound like the way knights talked. The problem is, when knights talk that way in older literature, it doesn’t sound stupid, because the whole world has that flavor. When a character in fantasy starts talking this way in a world that’s had a decidedly more modern flavor so far, I giggle.
Suggested replacement: Use the same simple and straightforward language you’ve probably been using all along. “I have come to challenge you” sounds much better in such cases than “Take thee back into the depths of night, foul creature! Avaunt!” and so on.
“Goodness & Light,” “Inner Beauty,” and similar psychobabble-candy phrases.
This is usually used during romantic scenes, or “redemption scenes” where it turns out the character who’s worried about her looks is a beautiful person after all. A character who probably had a personality until now turns into Dr. Feelgood and channels everything the author learned in Psychology 101. These are trite and almost never convincing. What’s supposed to be one of the most beautiful points in the novel makes me yawn instead.
Suggested replacement: Again, just like the feminist and challenge scenes, you can make the point without trite language, or even without words. Wouldn’t your mostly taciturn warrior be more inclined to get the point across by suddenly kissing the heroine than telling her all about her inner beauty, anyway?
The Importance Placed on “I love you.”
There are whole novels where the heroine or hero are paralyzed until they hear these words, and then can suddenly do anything. Our world places great emphasis on this. I don’t see why a fantasy world has to. Sure, a declaration of love is nice to hear, but “those three little words” don’t need to take center stage in a society that’s supposedly to have developed independently of earth, nor do you need them to “prove” that a romantic relationship exists.
Suggested replacements: Many. Some characters might react without words, like the taciturn warrior mentioned above. Some might ask the other character to wed or bed them as well as saying they love them. Perhaps there’s a specific courting phrase your world uses; this is the case in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Trilogy, where people say, “The sun rises in your eyes.” You can do it with pronouns. Recall the way Éowyn addresses Aragorn while in love with him and trying to get his attention in the LOTR books—with “thee” and “thou,” the second-person familiar. He uses “you” back, however, until after his marriage when he feels secure enough to say, “It heals my heart to see thee now in bliss.”
Yep, very personal, but these phrases make me twitch.