Is your word choice undermining your fantasy world building?

by | Jan 29, 2016

Last Updated:
Jan 29, 2016

What You'll Learn

It started because my editor said I couldn’t use the description “navy blue.”
“Because,” she pointed out, “not every navy on earth even uses the same color of blue,” much less the possible armada in my fantasy world. She suggested I use “dark blue.”
Apparently even Navy Blue has varieties!

Apparently even Navy Blue has varieties!

The proverbial light bulb illuminated.
I wondered how many other words had snuck into my writing that didn’t belong in a fantasy story – because they wouldn’t exist in that world. Had I said “Italian marble” when I should have said “archipelagic?” Had I compared the desert city of Ekhaba to the fables from Arabian nights when Arabia, much less those tales, would not exist in that world?
This may seem overly critical and nitpicky. But if I am going to spend weeks to months world building, why would I be willing to undermine all that work? Each time I have the opportunity to link into the world I am creating it is a chance to develop a sense of realism. How?
Referring to a place in your world builds an impression. Take the example above. If I described a building where the marble had been shipped from Portoreayl in the Archipelago of Bellaia, what sense of that city do you have?
Marble is expensive, so you might think wealthy. You probably picture the buildings constructed of marble. At the very least, you probably pictured a rocky place, warm, and near the sea. Admittedly, your mind might jump to a Mediterranean city as an example, but if you are immersed in reading a fantasy novel you will overlay those concepts with something new and combine it with all the tiny phrases used to describe Portoreayl and the archipelago. This is similar to building on the framework of fantasy.

Not my lost city, but darn it looks impressive!

It also builds history and depth. Previously the reference gave a sense of place: the environment and look of the city. But what if I’d said instead the marble came from Portoreayl before its people succumbed to disease so great that no one dares to breach its ivy clad walls? Now what sense do you have? A timeframe of the city now extends backward. Plus, you have a sense of fears and vulnerabilities of the people. Now the marble is also that much more valuable, so wherever the character is to see Portorealian marble is very special.
That is a much bigger impact than if I’d simply said “Italian marble,” and keeps a reader inside the story instead of yanking them back into the real world. As a writer, you want to pull the reader in deeper, not keep reminding them of what is beyond your novel. Things like vacation plans, places they’ve been, friends they were with…
So link back to the world you’ve created. It will help you as an author to keep building those impressions and history, word by word. By the time a reader finishes the novel, all of those instances add up a place that feels real, at least when it is done well. Real enough to remain a place they think about and miss – hopefully!
But you can take it too far.
A stone elemental could do this, but not a soil elemental...

A stone elemental could do this, but not a soil elemental…

I nearly did. At least I considered it. Because my novel is based on elemental magic: fire, water, air, spirit, and earth. Yeah, earth. Should it be earth?
We use the term because it is the name of our planet. So I should say a Myrran Elemental? That sounds like a pain to use. Until a reader is familiar with the term, I’d have to keep reminding them it meant a person that can control the ground.
Could I just use Ground Elemental? or Soil? Dirt? Stone? Ugh, I don’t like any of those. Nothing quite defines the idea of being able to control the soil, stone, and dead bits that make up everything under our feet. So I balanced the fact that the term really belongs to this world with the fact the concept means something far greater, and I used earth.
Seriously, you can lose sleep over word choice, or at least I can. Once I start questioning one, I’m wondering if fire would still be called fire until I have a headache. Then I go back to the rule that if fire is fire, you don’t call it something different unless it really is something different. The goal is not to confuse readers or require them to have a translation guide, but to keep them immersed in the story!
Do you stress over word choice? As a reader, do you notice when an author pulls you in or out of a story?




Autumn is a best selling indie author, conservationist, & world traveler with plans for many more adventures both real and fantastical! She is currently settled in the wilds of Maine with her small dragonish dog and husband, searching for a portal to another world.

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Written by: Autumn

Autumn is a best selling indie author, conservationist, & world traveler with plans for many more adventures both real and fantastical! She is currently settled in the wilds of Maine with her small dragonish dog and husband, searching for a portal to another world.

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  1. Victor Ray Rutledge

    It can be worse. If your ‘fantasy’ story is somehow linked to the ‘real’ world, then you have ‘leakage’ of words/concepts from this world to that. I have,many times, regretted that ‘twist’ in the story I wrote, and continue to rewrite, because it gets hard,,, very quickly.

    • This will be what I face in my next series (for 2017), of course it will be set in this world (urban fantasy), but … I already see challenges between creating a concrete alternate world of ours and linking it to a fantasy realm that is hidden and somehow making it unique. No wonder this had been a back burner idea for about 3 years.

      • Victor Rutledge

        As I’m certain you already know, my fantasy world, Thoss, is a place where ‘magic’ is actually science beyond our reckoning. While almost everyone can ‘use magic’, only the gifted few can interface with the device that produces the effect. (spoiler alert) the device is incredibly dangerous, and can transmogrify the user without warning. One of the Samovar children meets this fate, while the people of earth are trying to find a way to come to Thoss without dying in the attempt. It seems that the ‘wormhole’ that brought the starship Ethos to the planet was tuned to 5k years in the future, from Thoss. Thus the colonists traveled 5000 years into the ‘past’ when they came to Thoss. When the device(that made the wormhole) is understood well enough, (by those researching), the 5K year differential goes away and the earth that their ancestors left, is the earth that they contact. What follows is a comedy of errors in extremis. Book two is on the table, but book one still reads like an amateur’s attempt at more than he was capable of creating. I continue to labor.

  2. dad

    Even though I’m not a fantasy writer (or even a writer) you have given me insight into how “difficult” it can be to keep your world…. your world and not have our real world bleed over into it!

    • Hi Dad! I admit I really enjoy the challenge of writing and may spend more time on these nuances than some … but I think it pays off. And it keeps me learning! 🙂

  3. Bannister

    Yes, but no.. consider:

    The World you are writing about, would use their own semantics, Deep Ocean blue or Dark Magic blue or any number of names that they created, You can do what many authors do, and start changing expressions, language, hard to pronounce words in our Language, that’s very normal for them. We’ve all read hundreds of novels that do this, but remember back to how ‘hard’ it was to read.

    The Language of the world you are talking about, it as unlikely to use English as it is Navy Blue, So you shouldn’t even use English if you follow the path to its logical conclusion. But what you are writing is a portal to that world, and the listener won’t be seeing “dark magic blue” in their head as “Navy Blue”, unless you include a glossary of terms, that likely only 10% of your readers will both to reference as they read. The reader will use their own language, English, to understand your world from their perspective.

    That said, talk to a non-native English speaker about their descriptions of colours, run a few sentences of your world notes back-and-forwards through google translate and ask yourself.. would I want my book to read like this:

    English: The old man, his handlebar mustache glistening from sweat, rose up from the ground like a towering Behemoth.
    back-and-forth: Parents Corner mustache sweat glistening, got up from the ground high Domino.

    While the world you build may have nothing to do with “Navy” Blue, You and I reading English, do. As such as the reader of the book, will too.

    just 2 cents, thoughts to ponder..

    • I’ve had just about the same conversation with new authors as we discuss why they created a word for magic, or the local word for a horse. lol. It is true that at the heart of all of these stories we must assume that the real language has suddenly become English (or whatever we write in). So all the terms we use translate as well and making up a word for something that already exists is just confusing to readers.

      And the last thing you want to do is confuse readers!

      But if what you are describing is something truly new and unique to the world, that is when it is okay to create a new name. So no, I would never call dark blue, “dark magic blue,” unless it were a special color that appeared only wen someone were using magic power. But I do agree with my editor. The navy in this world didn’t have a color. Actually, they don’t even have a navy. So navy blue was the wrong term when dark blue would do. The reader might know the color I mean with navy blue (and dark blue too), but those little references back to our world instead of keeping things tied firmly (and in English) to the fantasy world do undermine the “reality” I’m trying to create.

      But yes, we can overthink everything! Like my panicked moment when I realized earth elemental was completely the wrong term since this wasn’t earth. But anything else was confusing. So I stuck with earth elemental. For every good rule, there are exceptions! 🙂

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