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Using terminology from real cultures in your secondary world...

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Mythopoet, Apr 8, 2014.

  1. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    So you've decided to create a secondary world for your story. You don't want it to be an alternate version of earth but with magic, you want it to be unique and other and different, a true secondary world. This will be so cool and original.

    You quickly become aware that it's very, very difficult to actually imagine things that are truly "other". It begins to dawn on you that is why most aliens and fantasy races are just humans but with exaggerated and stereotyped characteristics. And maybe it's also why people say to write what you know. Trying to imagine something that has no foundation in your mind is quite possibly impossible.

    And then there are the technical problems. You have to use words to describe all the strange and alien things you are trying to relate to your audience. The words you have to use are, for the most part, confined to your native language. Unless you're a linguist or someone with a natural knack for making new words, any words and names you come up with yourself are likely to come across to the reader as a random assembly of syllables that are rarely ever memorable. (I can't count the number of times I have felt that way about the words and names used by fantasy authors I have read.) And yet, thanks to Tolkien, fantasy-esque names and words are expected. If you name your epic fantasy hero Bob or Dave or even Steve people just won't take him seriously. (Thanks, Tolkien.)

    Aha! You think. I'll borrow names and words from another language that will be unfamiliar to my readers! And thus you join in a tradition as old as the genre. You chuckle at your own cleverness as you take words from an internet vocabulary list for [random language] and incorporate them into your world. You name your characters after obscure figures from various mythologies and smile as you wonder if any of your readers will see the way your choices indicate clues about the characters and their story.

    But wait. You suddenly remember something... The internet both connects the entire world and puts all of the world's information at our fingertips. Where, once upon a time, fantasy writers could count on their readers to not be overly familiar with anything that isn't commonly taught in public schools in their own country (and maybe a few more that speak the same language, if they're lucky) we no longer have that luxury. What our readers don't know, they can look up in 5 seconds with google. And with the digital revolution slowly but surely spreading across the globe more people from more countries are likely to be reading your work. How will readers in Japan feel when your characters greet each other in Japanese as if it was an alien language from an alien world? How will readers in Finland feel when they read your work and realize that you've used the Finnish word for "breakfast" as the main character's name because you thought it sounded cool? How will readers react when they know how you've used an element from Mayan mythology in a way that makes no sense whatsoever?

    And that brings us back to square one. Using real world mythology, terminology and language makes a lot of sense when your fantasy takes place on some version of our Earth. It starts to make less sense when you're using it to fill in a secondary world and yet anything that you come up with purely on your own isn't likely to resonate with readers as much as material based on real cultures will. Is it a catch 22? Is it a fine line that can be walked delicately and effectively with enough skill? If so, how do you walk it?

    Let me give a few real world examples of how I've seen these problems come up in fiction.

    1. A new fantasy writer I am acquainted with that published her first book recently with a small press apparently made the decision to have an alien race in her secondary world speak Japanese. Not something she came up with that's based on Japanese. Not Japanese altered a bit to look and feel different. Just straight up Japanese. When two characters greeted each other with "Konnichiwa" it dragged me kicking and screaming right out of the world. They continued to use very common, modern Japanese phrases and honorifics throughout the scene and it just made the whole thing ring false to me. I haven't been able to return to the book yet.

    2. I've come across many anime that use seemingly random English words for character names. Notable examples are "Milk" in Legend of the Legendary Heroes and "Jacuzzi" in Baccano! It's another frequent (though not always) immersion breaker for me, particularly if I'm watching in English and wondering to myself how the voice actors are keeping themselves from laughing.

    3. Another anime set in 18th century France used the Psalms of the Christian Bible as if they were obscure, powerful spells known only to a few with the power to turn people into zombies among other things. This was such a bizarre way to imagine the Pslams that I found it extremely hard to believe in the narrative and eventually gave up on the show.

    4. The Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy of fantasy novels by Tad Williams had their worldbuilding heavily dependent on real world counterparts. I could list each of the countries and peoples in that world and point out their counterpart in ours. Furthermore, the main religion of the world was an obvious copy of Christianity, in particular Catholicism. The parallels were so clear and so pervasive that I had a hard time believing in that world as a real secondary world, it felt more like a pale imitation of our own.

    So, what is your take on these issues? Is it something we should avoid? Is it something we can avoid? Have you had similar experiences with fiction you've read or watched or am I just too sensitive to such things? Note, I'm not so much asking these questions to get answers for myself as to spark an interesting discussion on the matter which is one I contemplate often.
  2. Logos&Eidos

    Logos&Eidos Sage

    To a degree It's unavoidable, we are from early twenty first century earth. We have draw from somewhere, a possible solution would be to use obscure terms with the same meaning as more common ones. Or coin new ones interiorly,it's what I'm doing. Think abut what something is, about what it literally is or about properties that it may possess then. derive a name or term from that, I'll give an example. The money in my world isn't the common copper,silver and gold pieces. It's little carved bits of a crystalline material that possess a warm inner glow. I named the stuff ardentra, ardent-petra, literally fiery-rock. A real world example is names,many names are the word that their meaning carries.
  3. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    It doesn't sound like you would appreciate some of the stories I write then. Sometimes I work with settings that are more or less my own invention, but other times I work with worlds that are intended to roughly resemble our own. The Virgin's Curse story I shared in the Showcase a short time ago is an example of the latter. Such a method allows me to write "alternate history" without worrying so much about strict historical accuracy.
  4. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    Obviously those things can interfere with suspension of disbelief, and for some, are hurdles they just aren't willing to leap. BUT at the end of the day, they're authorial choices that either work for an individual or they don't. Every author begs, borrows, and steals from the real world. It's impossible not to.

    In addition every author writing in a secondary world has to deal with the problem of accessibility. A part of the process is to mix in the familiar to provide solid ground for the reader to build on as they read. If memory serves, I remember a story written by one of the big scifi legends (Asimov I believe) they named their planets Alpha and Beta. They could have come up with something more original, but if you think about it, it wasn't necessary for understanding the story. I mean does it really matter if a character's name is Milk or Mike? Does their name lessen the impact on the reader if they die?

    For me that's the thing, the story. Getting that across clearly and in an entertaining manner is worth more to me as a writer than worrying about if somebody notices I'm using Latin for all my spell phrases, or that I'm retelling The War of the Roses.

    It's easy to come up with something alien. "Blizba jimpszid olegas bojod." And even then it's still a sentence, a human construct. Stories are an examination of us as humans. The alieness is just a tool allowing us as humans to take a step back and look at a situation without the human factor clouding the view.

    Now don't get me wrong here. I do believe an author has to be careful in using real world elements like aliens speaking Japanese. They have to be aware of the pros and cons, we all do. And I guess part of it is not to overload your story with elements like that. I once read in a screen writing book that the audience is willing to give the story one "Mumbo Jumbo" moment, maybe two. The mumbo jumbo moment is where the writer is basically asking the audience to forgive this one thing that they know is kind of BS, but if forgiven, the rest of the story will make sense. But once you get beyond two of these mumbo jumbo elements, the story looses all credibility and they can no longer suspend disbelief.

    To me, that's why it's so easy to nit-pick bad stories. After disbelief is lost, the audience has trouble believing/trusting anything the story tells them.
    Last edited: Apr 8, 2014
    KC Trae Becker likes this.
  5. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    I believe this association with real-world concepts is something that's hard enough to avoid as to be practically impossible. However, I think that by being aware of this, we can lessen the impact of bad association and increase the benefit of good associations.

    Using a word and pretending it's our own when it isn't I would say is a bad thing, but using the same word and acknowledging we know we borrowed it from somewhere, I'd say is okay. How to go about acknowledging this might be easier said than done, but I'm sure it can be pulled off.

    In my own WIP I'm dealing with and trying to incorporate this disruptiveness as an element in the story. The setting is contemporary with the real world of today, but otherwise it's your regular standard made up fantasy world. My MC works as a paperpusher in the city and he goes on vacation to a region where the locals live in the traditional way of his people. It's a bit like an accountant from New York goes to live with the Amish for a week - roughly.
    One thing I'm doing to remind the reader of the setting is I gave my MC a cellphone. He doesn't have any coverage and he's not supposed to use it, but he really wants to take some pictures to bring back home. My thought is that while this is sort of disruptive in that it brings the reader out of the pastoral countryside world it also reminds them of the bigger world outside. Hopefully this will serve to add some depth to the world, rather than ruining the mood.
  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    #4 doesn't bother me either. There is a lot of fantasy out there loosely-based on real world history or places, where it is easy to see the counterparts to what is in the novel. I don't have a problem with that. If it is done well, it can be interesting.

    Items 1 through 3 would bug me.
  7. Snowpoint

    Snowpoint Sage

    To be fair, Jacuzzi Splot had genuine gangster cred! :)
  8. Hainted

    Hainted Sage

    I ran into this problem trying to come up with an equivalent for Humanity in a world with more than one intelligent race. Having said that though a rabbit is a rabbit, not a smerp.
  9. Trick

    Trick Auror

    I tend to run into this problem. I agree that avoiding it entirely is simply impossible. The whole idea of making a character someone the reader can relate to is a human thing. Writing a book for people to read is something done on earth. So, try imagining a world that has literally no relation to ours... you've already failed. The lack of effort to make things seem foreign is the real problem. Foreign is the word we need and not when applied to other countries and cultures since obviously the Japanese don't find their own language foreign, even if I would. In my WIP I've used a lot of Germanic words for things, not modern German though. English is similar enough to German that English speaking readers will be able to pronounce the words and remember them but I've taken these words from various dialects, all of which are extinct. I've also changed the spelling as necessary to create correlations in my MC's world that would not exist in ours. If my book is printed in America, Germany or Bangladesh, no one will know these words except for European language scholars and since they're not exactly my target audience, I don't care if they think I am not trying hard enough.

    Using languages and other commonplace human constructs that are already in existence to mold your own world in a way that is foreign but recognizable to enough people that you can make a living writing seems like enough to me. If you did anymore, you would world-build 24 hours a day and never write.
  10. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

    Many years ago I read a story where all the main alien race spoke in "Cowboy" English but that was explained as they had been watching out films for 50+ years and really liked Westerns and especially the films of John Wayne. That kind of speech had kind of take over as a meme for those Aliens that went out to explore and make contact with other "Aliens" [i.e. us]... it sort of made sense while reading it.
    and it was kind of fun spotting the film references in the speech.
  11. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    I am certainly not attempting to say that sort of thing can't be done well. I would hold up the Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander as a perfect example. But of course Alexander was intentionally writing a fantasy based on the mythology of Wales.

    The feeling I got from Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn books was more that his secondary world was a sort of mad libs where he filled in the blanks with real world cultures as a short cut. I really disliked his worldbuilding because it felt very shallow to me. But perhaps that was just my own interpretation.

    No disrespect to Jacuzzi. I can see how, if you can separate the meaning of the word with the sound of the word in your head, Jacuzzi sounds hardcore. Still makes me laugh though.
  12. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    I also wanted a word for humanity that wasn't familiar to emphasize that the place of my "human" race in this world is not the same as our place in this one. Humans in my world are not the center of the universe and not at the top of the food chain. ;)

    I alas am no linguist so I also try to make use of languages that are not familiar. Either extinct languages, like ancient Egyptian, or obscure languages like Basque. And even when I do utilize other languages I also often make changes to the words, sometimes to make them more compatible with the aesthetics of the world or to make them more easily pronounceable on sight. I try to never make arbitrary changes to words just to make them slightly different than the original word. I find that sort of thing quite transparent and a cheap trick.

    I am fortunate enough to have a knack for languages and a good ear for the taste and sounds of words which I think helps. Tolkien made up a word in his Quenya language which means "individual pleasure in the sounds and forms of words" or "sound taste": lámatyávë. I am fortunate enough to benefit from this sense which I think is very helpful for a fantasy writer. 
  13. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    I use real world terminology, but the one thing I'm struggling with is the days of the week. I haven't been able to come up with anything that sounds good, so I haven't used anything in the stories yet. Not...good. But I have retained much of everything else because my story world is a mirror of the real one, with magical creatures. But thank you for this thread, as its given me some things to think about.
  14. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    When I originally started on my setting I wanted to call my hobbit-like race hobbits. Unfortunately, the word is trademarked and I decided I'd rather not take my chances so I chose the word anfylk instead. It comes from Anna's Folk, where Anna is the goddess who created the race, and folk, well, is a different word for people. So anfylk sort of makes a bit of sense.
    For all intents and purposed a fylk looks like a hobbit though and they live in burrows in the ground and have hairy feet (and legs - that's important).

    So I guess I'm blowing my mumbo-jumbo moment by having hobbits and calling them something else. I think that once the reader gets into it though, they'll notice there really are difference and that the anfylk aren't quite as hobbit like as they first thought. At least that's my hope.

    One of my beta readers kept jokingly referring to them as hobbits in their earlier comments, while the other noted the parallels but also explained how it was clear they weren't actually hobbits.
  15. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    Yes, I think it makes a difference whether someone has intentionally done this and taken the time to do it well, or whether they've sort of lazily stumbled into it. I haven't read that book by Williams, but I do like some of his other work.

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