Once, I was working on a scene in Soul of Power, and I was thinking of how to describe a certain creature’s claws. Although a bit clichéd, I briefly considered using the phrase “razor sharp.” Then it occurred to me: the Jaben’s Rift trilogy is set in a completely different world. Although certain words and phrases are almost required in fantasy (e.g. swords, blade, staff, etc…), I started wondering about whether or not my character would even know what a razor was. If not, and if I was in that character’s POV, then how could I use a phrase like “razor sharp” to describe the monster’s claws?
Then I started wondering what other words and phrases that we hear on a daily basis would a fantasy character from a completely different world not be familiar with? Measurements like miles or inches might be better expressed as leagues or hand’s breadths. Yards could be paces or stone’s throws. If a man was a foot taller than another man, you might say he stood a head taller than the other. In Jaben’s Rift, although there are years, there are no weeks or months. Instead, there are sixdays, spans (five sixdays), cycles (ten sixdays), and duals (two sixdays). The four seasons of Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring, are replaced by the six Cycles of Growth, Gathering, Change, Landsleep, Awakening, and Storms.
To be perfectly honest, the characters might not know what a league is either, but unless you want to come up with a completely original system of weights, measures, and distances—and then take the time to explain what they are in your story—some allowances are necessary. And, generally, since a lot of fantasy takes place in a medieval setting, the medieval terms can still give the proper feel.
Of course, nothing says you can’t use modern terms either. The average reader will be more familiar with them, and unless your dialogue is filled with a lot of thee’s and thou’s, it’s doubtful anyone will object. And if you’re writing contemporary fantasy like Harry Potter or Percy Jackon, there’s no conflict at all.
For the Jaben’s Rift series, although I’ve tried to avoid terms that might be a bit too modern for Teleria, I still use a lot of words and phrases from modern English, simply because coming up with replacements would be too time consuming and really not provide enough benefit to the story for the effort. But if you’re creating a completely new fantasy society and culture, inventing at least a few words, phrases, and terms specific to your culture will help add a bit of realism to it and make it easier for your readers to immerse themselves in your world.
It can also be very effective when you have characters from different cultures interacting with each other. If you use more than one POV, the words and phrases specific to that character’s culture will give your characters more unique voices, and can also be used in various ways through misunderstandings to give your reader a chuckle or create conflict and tension. For example, think of the confusion of the phrase “ornery old goat” if the one on the receiving end had no concept of what “ornery” meant or even what a goat was? From a Far Land has an example of what might happen in such a situation. This isn’t limited to fantasy either. Science fiction, especially if it involves aliens or time travel, can use this for some humorous moments. In the Star Trek movie The Voyage Home, where Kirk and the crew travel back in time to 1980s San Francisco, there’s a funny moment where they try to get on a bus and get kicked off because they don’t know what “exact change” means.
How you handle descriptions, measurements, and other potential “culture conflicts” is up to you. Would your characters know what a razor was, or how long a yard or a mile was? Unless your story’s society is completely alien to Earth, using contemporary terms will probably be okay. I just wanted to inject a bit of “otherworldliness” into the Jaben’s Rift stories, so I threw in a few Telerian words, phrases, and concepts here and there.
What about your stories? If you write fantasy or science fiction, do you come up with your own terminology, or do you go with what your readers will be most familiar with?