Today’s #thinkythoughts are about interrogating your (second world) SFF stories for references specific to our Earth/reality and using them as an opportunity for world-building.
This isn’t true for all readers, but I find idioms and references that are clearly tied to our Earth’s history and societies to be jarring when I’m reading something set in another world. Perhaps it’s the etymology nerd in me, but words have a really strong ability to evoke specific times, places and frames of reference. Being thoughtful with your references means you can slip in some worldbuilding without infodumping, building up the feeling of a unique and fleshed-out world with just a few phrases here and there.
Say for instance you have a character sigh “Thank God, the cavalry have arrived!” during a particularly tense conflict. Your intention might be to express relief that they’ve been saved from a dire situation by a force coming to the rescue, but there’s even more behind this simple phrase. The sentence implies two things – that the person speaking is aware of, if not subscribes to, a religion in which there is a singular God, *and* that their frame of reference involves the existence of divisions of mounted soldiers. This is all well and good if these things are all true of your world, but what if they aren’t? You’ve not only missed a chance to do some worldbuilding, but you’ve also led your reader down the wrong path, causing them to assume things that aren’t true and making your world feel more generic (aka like ours) in the process.
It can be difficult to dig out which of your references carry this weight – after all, don’t all words come from a rich soup of our particular world’s cultures, histories and clashes? Absolutely, and I’m not trying to say that the only good SFF stories are the ones with made-up words for every single reference – rather that even a few well-chosen alterations can set your story apart and build a unique world with only a few words.
Taking the above-mentioned phrasing as an example, what if instead of ‘Thank God, the cavalry have arrived!’ your character exclaims “Praise the Fates, I thought we were about to be sucked into the All-Hungering Abyss before you got here!” In the same amount of space you have created something uniquely Your World ™ _and_ given the reader information about your world – namely that the Fates are an entity that receive gratitude when things go well, the speaker’s world is more nautical than our society, and that there’s something Very Big and Bad out there that is known to be almost inescapable.
Some key areas to think about:
As above, allusions to Christianity are one of the most common things I see slipped into fantasy (and sometimes sci-fi) manuscripts – references to angels and demons, to a capital-G singular God, to heaven, hell, and everything that goes with it. While these are certainly familiar references for readers, they carry a whole host (pun intended) of implications about the culture and history of your world that probably isn’t accurate. Think about your world’s belief system when you’re writing profanity as well – the concept of damnation is very Christianity-centric and probably won’t apply to a world without hell and a judgemental deity. “Oh God’ and ‘oh jeez’ might be second nature to even the atheists among us, but your characters in a world without Christianity probably won’t be uttering them! (NK Jemesin’s The Broken Earth trilogy does this fabulously – ‘rusting’ instead of ‘fucking’ tells us so much about what that world values and loathes with one simple word…)
References to our world’s cultures and countries specifically can also be unhelpful. You might want a character to eat some delicious French toast, or express confusion by saying “It’s all Greek to me”, but these have very specific touchpoints in our world. See also: Achilles’ heel, resting on your laurels, reading the riot act.
A bit more complicated but also worth thinking about are things like days of the week and months of the year. These are all derived from cultures that make up our world, but will not be present in a second-world story. Monday morning may make an easy shortcut to explaining why your character is lacking in enthusiasm, but it also implies things about the world tying it to _our_ world’s calendar, history, working week, and language. Use the opportunity to create something specific to your world instead and you can drop in little gems of worldbuilding each time you reference the date.
And then there’s the inexhaustible list of phrases that invoke specific references which may or may not be pertinent in your world. Someone having a ‘poker face’ implies the existence of the card game, and of gambling. ‘Biting the bullet’ implies firearms exist; ‘the cat’s out of the bag’ implies feline companions.
Using any of these references does not mean your writing is bad! But by looking at your word choices and making sure that they’re intentional about what they say about your world – and adjusting or creating new references when you can – you can really level up your worldbuilding and transport your readers. Plus, it’s just fun to see where words and phrases came from and create your own – after all, we writers Do Words!