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Hell, damn, the sun, the moon... etc

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Holoman, Jul 28, 2016.

  1. Holoman

    Holoman Troubadour

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    How do people feel about reading these kind of words in fantasy novels? Words that are entrenched in our world like "hell"--do they have a place in fantasy or should we create our own?

    I see many fantasy novelists that replace earth blasphemy with whatever deity is worshipped in their world, so to curse they say something like "Oh, Lord of the Sky..." but I don't really feel like doing this, mainly because my gods' names are not obviously gods and I don't want to info dump it early in the book.

    I tend to avoid referring to "the moon" or "the sun" for similar reasons, as I feel this has the same earthly connotations.

    When you read do you notice things like this?
     
  2. Legendary Sidekick

    Legendary Sidekick The HAM'ster Moderator

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    Sun, moon, hell... these all come up in A Song of Ice and Fire (Seven hells! as a curse), and it's not immersion-breaking for me.

    If, for example, you called the sun Helios, that's more likely to break immersion. Unless the information is interesting and relevant, a reader might wonder why the sun can't just be called the sun? Or the reader might assume Helios is significant when really, it's just the sun.
     
  3. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    Sun, moon and damn wouldn't break immersion, but hell does. It always jarred me a bit when Brian Jacques used the phrase "Hell's teeth" or "Hellgates" in his Redwall books. On the other hand, "Thank the fates/seasons" was fine. Just my two cents.
     
  4. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I agree with Legendary Sidekick. The argument can be reduced to absurdity. Why call it bread? Don't call it a dog because dogs are bound to real-Earth. For that matter, don't refer to ground as earth. Or as ground either.

    See the problem?

    That said, I do also struggle with curses. In my alternate Earth, Christianity exists but it never took hold. It remains an all but unknown Levantine sect. Roman pantheism rules.

    I can refer to Hell, though I use lower case and mention it rarely. I can have devils, but not the Devil. The most problematic, though, is invoking gods. Cursing by saying, in effect, Jupiter damn it! is both weak and silly. So how do my characters curse?

    I have my characters refer to bodily functions--all the obvious candidates. That's kind of a cognate family of cursing. Religious cursing is a different sort of cursing. A third group is what I think of as Babylonian cursing; that is, phrases and entire sentences along the lines of may your crops wither and locusts eat your eyes. One can get pretty colorful there, but it's tough to come up with something a character like that would say when he drops a hammer on his toe.

    This all gets even more complicated when I introduce other peoples. I want my dwarves to curse differently from elves, from humans, from orcs. Trying also to separate cursing from real-Earth families of cursing is just more than I want to take on.
     
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  5. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    Well, that at least can be chalked up to translation convention. We read books primarily in Earthly languages, whether they include snippets of conlang or not; it's assumed that in a fantasy world the characters are not speaking our language at all, and the writer is "translating" from their native language into words we understand.
     
  6. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    This is the biggest irritation for me of all those mentioned. If I read some line about a wounded man clawing at the earth trying to get away from an attacker, or any other reference to "earth" as ground, the immersion is utterly broken for me.

    Hell and damn don't bother me. It's that translation thing. I would assume many religious systems would have parallel ideas for hell and damnation.

    Similarly, sun and moon are no problem for me. I would not be bothered by alternate names for them, depending on the alternate names. Especially, if multiple moons exist for the fantasy world, having different names for them and referring to them by those names would be fine.

    For me, the difference between sun/moon and Earth is that Earth feels more like a proper noun whereas sun and moon strike me as generics. If we refer to moons around other planets, we still say "moon." We can also refer to other stars as suns. But if we refer to any exoplanet as "another Earth"....well, that in itself is an allusion to a singular planet that goes by the name Earth.
     
  7. Peat

    Peat Sage

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    To be honest, I'm more likely to roll my eyes are people trying to avoid things like hell/damn than I am at people using them. Its never even occurred to me questioning people using words like sun and moon. I'm not saying alternate names are bad, they can be cool and a plus, but I find them unnecessary, and bad alternate names are bad.
     
  8. Holoman

    Holoman Troubadour

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    Ah I'd forgot earth, but yeh I always call it the ground.

    I don't swear in my writing so without "damn" and "what the hell" it's always a struggle to find something that sounds like a natural curse.
     
  9. So I agree that there are tiers of swears. One tier are the religious swears. These are fairly culture specific. I would be rather broken if someone in Westeros took Jesus's name in vain. But I understand the use of Lord of the Sky, supposing that this the name of their god. Hell I don't have a problem with since it conjures up a place of eternal torment and is a quick reference. Now, if it was Hell and listed Satan as the overlord I would have a problem. Then comes another tier, bodily functions. Those I can chalk up to translation, shit for example is just a translation. The last tier are culture specific. I would not like to hear "earthly" culture specific swears in the other world (like the n-word for example). I like what Sanderson does. He thinks about what is important to the world and invents swears out of them (rust and ruin).
     
  10. The main point of a swear is that you get a rush from saying it because it feels dirty. This is why saying things like "By the gods' toenails!" or whatever really annoy me. However, practically all swears are culture specific, so what is scandalous to us is totally different from what is considered scandalous in another culture. In an extremely religious culture, religious swears would be potent indeed.

    Characters need to be able to swear, in my opinion. It needs to sound like swearing and not like some nonsense you made up. Do you have any idea how hard it is to picture a guy shouting "By the gods' toenails!" when he drops a coffee mug on his toe? With insults you can be way more creative, but swearing is another thing entirely. The reason it's so tough is that the characters aren't in our culture, but the readers are.

    When a character in a fantasy world uses one of our swears, it's a bit jarring. On the other hand, making up swears is hard to do well, and more often than not makes me cringe. So...

    It seems better just to use our swears. There's an unspoken rule of fantasy that the characters aren't speaking English; the dialogue is being translated. So you could chalk it up to that. Even a culture different from ours might find some of the same things distasteful enough to use as swears--bodily functions, for instance.
     
  11. ddmealing

    ddmealing Dreamer

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    Argh I wish I was better at this. One of my critique partners has an absolute gift for creating authentic-feeling curses in fantasy worlds, and my characters just say '****'.

    I totally agree that characters need to be able to swear. It's such a natural part of my IRL speech (sorry kids!) that it feels awkward not to have reliable go-to's for my characters at appropriate times. As far as how to do it, this is one of those 'you know it when you see it' things that really revolves around tone. If your characters are speaking stilted middle-english one step removed from verilies and forsooths you probably don't want them dropping casual F-bombs. But if your character is a drunken soldier it's probably fine.

    Maybe part of doing this well is getting the reader invested enough in the other aspects of your fantasy cultures, especially your religions, that it feels genuinely shocking to take the Gods' names (or some other profound religious utterance) in vain. It's a tough thing to get right. Definitely something I still need to learn.
     
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  12. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Honestly, I don't have a problem with any of it. In particular, hell, heaven, moon, sun... so what. I could care less, if the writing is good and the story is good, these things mean nothing to me. For me, Earth is a planet, earth is soil. I get folks being annoyed, but I could care less. Deep beneath the earth of Mars might sound funny... I'd probably avoid it, but in the end as far as I am concerned it is correct. And so much fantasy is in "alternate" Earth settings, so...

    But, that is the only one I might even have a little issue with.
     
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  13. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    As with so much else in our craft, it only really matters when it's done badly.
     
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  14. Legendary Sidekick

    Legendary Sidekick The HAM'ster Moderator

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    Zeusdammit.
     
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  15. La Volpe

    La Volpe Sage

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    My general opinion on this is that you stick with the default unless you specifically change it. In particular, if you explain the culture has an afterlife where all people's spirits party for all eternity, then using the word hell would be weird. Similarly, if you describe a hell-equivalent in your religion and call it the Dreadworld, using hell as a qualifier would seem weird.

    I like to try and incorporate pieces of the culture in swears and sayings. But I don't just take a normal swear and substitute a different word. An example I liked is from Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. They have an alternate dimension called "Oblivion" which is a bad place to be, with demon equivalents and torture etc. And when the city guards run to attack you, they yell "Oblivion take you!" I found that to be very well done, and I try to emulate that in my own stories.

    I don't know, man. The word "earth" originally referred to "ground, soil, dirt, dry land; country, district". Or used as opposed to the heavens and underworld. I.e. the planet was named after the dirt, not the other way around. I find myself sometimes using it, simply because "ground" can mean something else in he same context. Ground seems to mean "lowest surface" when in the context of something standing on or falling to it. While earth refers to dirt and soil, but also implies a bigger presence than the other two words. In particular, it can refer to dirt and rock and general areas. And its alternate meaning (being planet) needs a very different context.

    E.g. The man came over the hill. The earth was barren.
    I could say that the ground was barren, but doesn't have the same sense of place. And it could mean sterile tiles. And I could say the dirt was barren, but there's not just dirt there.

    So sometimes it's just less confusing than "ground" and more descriptive than "dirt".
     
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  16. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Maybe it's a personal preference. I can say that I've encountered "earth" in at least two recent reads, and it knocked me out of the story, cringe-worthy. I think it's the automatic association of the word with the planet. I can rationalize it (as I did each time) but that very act of having to rationalize it breaks my immersion. It's not as big a break as reading something like, "He had his hair cut in that young bieber fashion" would be. (Hah. Blech.)

    It came to mean the planet in a natural progression, I think; the two are now tied; and I wonder if these people running around on their different planet will one day gain a broader perspective and start calling their planet Earth.
     
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2016
  17. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Getting knocked out of your read by the word earth is as bad as getting knocked out by the use of redundant directionals and "began"! And a lot of other damned silly things!

    Oh wait, that's me, higgly piggly.
     
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  18. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    See, and my personal trip point is dammit versus damn it. The former comes too close to da mit (German). And even more charitably (and less pedantically), it feels like a circumlocution. And you know what those feel like!
     
  19. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

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    I apologise for going off on a tangent here, but you might want to consider reading some curse tablets from the Roman world. They are quite colourful. They are literal curses - intended to call down the retribution of the gods on their targets rather than as simple swearing - but they might provide some inspiration for phrasing and how the gods might be referenced. The book that I have is called Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, by John G Gager, and it contains descriptions and translations of over 100 curse tablets and inscriptions, split into categories such as competition, love, legal disputes and so on.
     
  20. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I think of it as Babylonian cursing, but of course it was done by other peoples as well. Those are more akin to actual cursing--laying a divinely-backed bad trip on someone.

    Thanks for the reference.
     
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