Thursday, April 7, 2011

Defining your world through language

Honestly, I am trying to get better at this whole blogging in regular intervals, but mostly I think I have to actually be saying something in order to blog and I don’t feel you all care or need to hear my every thought, so for right now I think it is better this way. I’m too scatter-brained to try to come up with any sort of blogging schedule.

But today I do feel like I have something to share! Something near and dear to my heart. The language of books. Now I’m not talking about the language you are writing in or how you are writing but I am talking about how your characters are talking. And I’ll be honest, I do not read a whole lot of contemporary literature, I am more of a fantasy/dystopia/steampunk king of girl, so this is more geared towards that (tough believe me I have read contemporary novels with this problem too). And actually this has become a point of focus for me. But I think how your characters talk to each other is just as important as anything else they do, and as important as any part of your world development. After all if JK Rowling had never written the word “Muggle” or “Mud-blood” how different would those books feel? My bet is very. 

Language is such an important part of our everyday lives we a lot of times do not think of all the words that are slag or particular to just us, and I think it is something that is overlooked often when writing. Because honestly if I am reading a book that take part in a fantasy word a random “oh my god!” really pulls me right out of it. I think there are masters at this, Scott Westerfeld for example has such a gift for making the language his characters speak in feel real and organic and it just flows. Tamora Pierce is another I feel is a good example. But just as often as the language is good it is also bad, James Dashner for example I feel really missed the mark in his Maze Runner books. It did not feel truthful and more like he just replaced the words he wanted to use with different words to make it seem different.  I really feel that this is what happens most often, that authors just replace the curse words or slang words they want to use with something else they made up to make the language stand out. But to me it always feels cheesy and forced and makes me stop cold.

But I think I have some tips to help you define the language in your world just a little bit better!

 I think this is usually a huge one for me when reading a fantasy work but a well-defined Parthenon of Gods can make or break a fantasy book. I think Tamora Peirce’s Tortall books are a fantastic illustration of this. Because if your book does not take place on earth then I do not feel like your characters should be calling on the same gods we do. And knowing what gods your characters worship can do a lot to help you develop not only the characters but the culture they live in as well. After all, a culture that worships a war god and one that worships a sea god are going to be vastly different. And they will have different types of speech as well.

Another thing you can pull from is a well-defined sub culture. This is something that can be very useful when writing a book that takes place on earth, but I think it really helps everyone. Is your character really into punk music? Tattoos? Dancing?  Knowing the kind of things and people your character deals with every day will go lengths to helping you know basic words in their everyday vocabulary. Personally being a person who  spends a lot of time playing with, cutting, styling and coloring hair I use a lot of words like foils, bonding , developer, brassy,  and tone,  I’m sure not ever one dose and likewise  I do not use the same words a dancer would.  Heck I can’t really even say I know very many. Another way is to create your own sub-culture; I think Cassandra Clair did this very well with her Shadow Hunters. Because she did not just say “Here are the shadow hunters…. Deal with it.” But instead she actually wrote them a complete history and blended it with real history so it feels more organic and real. And that seaways into my next point nicely…

But a good history will take you a long way, as will knowing your time period. Again I feel this is beneficial to all types of books but I feel it is especially useful for dystopian novels.  But you have this world, and I want to know and feel that the human (or not human as the case may be) has evolved  since point A to point F, after all the language used in the 70s is not entirely the same as the language we use now. So likewise if you are writing a book that takes place in the future your characters should not be using the same words as me. Scott Westerfeld excels at this, but for those of us not as gifted with words I have a few tips. Knowing your history is number one, if you have events you can riff on or people you can pull those names or events  into your slang/cussing. Also if it is a dystopian world, how have the world languages settled?  Could you pull slang from other languages into your world? Not a book, but I think Joss Whedon did this well in his show Firefly, deciding that English and Chinese are the only two surviving languages from earth and thusly everyone speaks a mixture of both.

Ultimately, in my opinion, language can make or break a book. And I think that it can do wonders to helping you define your world without having to actually say anything.  Because language just is. We need it, your characters need it, and I think it is one of the greatest tools in the constant battle of showing not telling. The way your character talks can show so much of the world to the reader that never has to be fully explained, I think everyone can benefit from thinking about their characters language just a bit more. 


And don't forget, the Now Starring Blogfest being held on April 25th by Lindz and myself.


  1. Great post! People have been giving me a hard time about Talia's formal speech patterns, but she's a scientist with no social skills in the beginning of her character arc.

    I didn't make up new swear words just because they are on another planet for the very reason you talked about. Sometimes it can work, but I don't know that I could weave it in seamlessly and make it feel real.

    BTW, I am SO excited for the Now Starring Blogfest. I've been working on a movie trailer/book trailer of sorts for my entry. I figured I could have fun and then cut the extra characters when it's time to do a real book trailer.

  2. I've become very attune to the language in my current WIP because the are a few different languages in it, and accents within those languages, and the gods are different between all of them, and the weather is different, and all of that bundles up into a unique way of speaking for each group of people. And since it's an iron-age culture I've had to take out a lot of modern words and phrases and ways of speaking. There's no such thing as a month, or a week, or minutes, and even after years of writing and editing I still find these little mistakes where I wrote "a few minutes later" or "last month".

    Great post on language!

  3. I just made a note to myself today to *seriously* develop my language for druid magic.
    I have my gods, I have my history, and yet for whatever reason I never came up with a language to compliment it.
    Great post!

  4. I never can stick to a blog schedule either! I agree with you about language. Important stuff!

  5. That's a good point - making up words for important concepts can be a key part of world-building.

    I had a word I was looking for in my 2010 Nanowrimo that I never really got to - a human soul who gets sent back from the afterlife to help the Angels. After I finished the book, I had the idea of just calling him a 'Charlie' - the Angels' Charlie, as a whimsical reversal of Charlie's Angels.

    I'm starting up a 'Critiquing Crusaders' program, where participants in the Second Crusade can find other writers to exchange critiques with or form critiquing circles. If you're interested, come by The Kelworth Files to check it out!

  6. You might be interested in my blog project, which is about language, life, body, and experience. Please come check out and consider submitting something!