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Using Earth terms for a Fantasy world

So I have created my fantasy world, and have a lot of made up creatures roaming around in it. It's my world, so I do have earth named creatures as well.
My question to you is, as a reader, when trying to describe a new creature would you rather I kept it in fantasy trying to explain it or would it be alright to use earth animals to help describe it:

- the beast looked like a cross between a dog and antelope.
- the beast had a long body with antlers on top.

Not the best examples, but I am sure you get my meaning.

Does it ruin the fantasy world to use common description, or does it make it easier.



Myth Weaver
I'd say you should only use animals from Earth if they also exist in your world. Your characters should identify things based on what they know, not what the author knows if that is different.
I write in the first person, and all my animals are made up, so this is a hard one for me. I can't even describe anything as being like ice or snow because my characters live in the tropics and have never seen either. I struggle with describing my imaginary animals.

I have used general terms that apply to a group of species, such as "cat" or "ape." If my made up animals would be classified as that, it's all right to call them that. Words like "leonine" (lion-like) or "vulpine" (fox-like) or "ursine" (bear like) I don't know about, but they do exist. I think they would slip by unnoticed in a third-person narrative, but not in first-person. The ones I mentioned definitely would come across as pretentious to some, however.

I've found it helpful to use words that are evocative of certain animals, or traditionally associated with certain animals. For example, if I say an animal is "golden" with a "flowing mane" readers are likely to think lion. If an animal is large and grey with "baggy, wrinkled skin" they're going to think of an elephant. You have to let your reader decide what kind of animal it looks like, and then add details. I find it most helpful to start with general description (size? Shape? Furry or scaly?) and then move on to more specific details. (Stripes? Horns? Fur/skin color?)

If you, as the narrator, were self aware and able to "break the fourth wall" (directly address the reader) it might work to describe animals in reference to Earth animals, because it's understood that the narrator is a person outside of the story who it telling the story.
Two different points, and both well taken.

Anybody else?

The image in my head of the animal is so vivid, I just want to share that with people. So I am trying hard to do the animal justice.


Depends on your narrative voice a little. Some authors with a strong omniscient voice can totally carry readers while using descriptive terms completely out of keeping with the world described. They're rare. If everything's done in close or first PoV, you simply can't do it.

Between those two extremes? It will vary on taste. I have no issue with it but know I'm in the minority.
Two different points, and both well taken.

Anybody else?

The image in my head of the animal is so vivid, I just want to share that with people. So I am trying hard to do the animal justice.

Unfortunately your readers will end up imagining the animal for themselves to some degree no matter how well it is described. I totally relate to wanting to share the image in your head. I want my readers to be able to see my settings, creatures and characters as vividly as I do. But there is also fun in seeing how your reader's view is different from your own.

That's the nature of writing. It's a relationship, not a concrete object. Unless you can draw your creature, or else portray it through a concrete medium, everyone will in some way see it differently.

La Volpe

- the beast looked like a cross between a dog and antelope.
- the beast had a long body with antlers on top.

If I read the first description, I would immediately expect there to be dogs and antelopes in your world. I.e. if there aren't any animals named dogs or antelopes, then I wouldn't use that first sentence (unless MAYBE if you're using omniscient, or if the POV character is not from your world).

And in general, don't worry too much about describing the animal in detail. Pick a few specific things that are important, and let the reader fill in the rest. Just like with character descriptions, metaphors and impressions work better to describe animals than measurements and angles (unless these are specifically important). But use comparisons to things that POV character has actually seen before.

I feel that fiction tends to be a collaborative effort between the author and the reader, rather than just thought transplanting from the author to the reader. Besides, like Dragon said, the reader will come up with their own imagined picture anyway.


I'm reminded of Asimov's Nightfall, which comes with a foreword noting that the novel calls everything by Earth terms so as to not distract the reader with unnecessary exoticism.


I don't have an opinion on using earth terms or not, but of the two example descriptions you give, I find the second one to be a lot more effective.


If you can use earth terms, there is more economy to your words, as you can create an image easily in the reader's mind.

If you want to avoid using earth terms, then I suggest the POV view the animal doing something. Through the description of its action you can then show its attributes.

E.g. It had the body of a bear, and horns like a moose.


The beast stood up on its powerful hind legs, and wrapped its front claws around the tree. Bob remembered when that tree was planted on his sister's first name day, twenty years ago. Its black fur snagged in clumps on the rough bark and the tree groaned as it bowed under its weight. The massive splayed antlers that rose from its head like a wild crown reached the top branches.... etc, etc, etc.
Great input.
Thanks everyone.
I am leaning towards not using the earth animals as a description, and letting the readers mind run with it.