Little Things That Make World Building Work

Today’s guest is R.C. Lewis, who has taught math to teenagers for over ten years, including several where she found calculus is just as fun in American Sign Language. After a lifetime of thinking she didn’t have an ounce of creativity, she realized she just needed to switch to metric. Turns out whole liters were waiting to pour out, and she now writes geeky-chic sci-fi when she escapes the classroom. Her debut novel Stitching Snow releases October 14, 2014 from Hyperion. You can find R.C. on Twitter (@RC_Lewis) and at her website.

When you’re writing science fiction, world-building is a major consideration. For some writers, it’s the first consideration. Government structure, social hierarchy, clothes and customs and more.

Language is another aspect, and what I want to focus on. Not the global level—how many languages, who speaks each one, levels of formality. No, what I get caught up in are the tiny details. The individual words.

Sure, we can pretend we’re reading a translation of the “real” language, so anything in English is fair game. Sometimes that works just fine, but if we use certain words without thinking them over, we might kill the immersive nature of the reading experience.

Here are a couple of vocabulary areas I try to keep in mind:


Every society seems to have some form of slang. Personally, I’m rarely in favor of completely making up words for this purpose. If you think about the slang we have in our own society, it all has a root in something. Those roots can often tell you something about the values or focus of the society in question.

On a related note, this is especially true of swear words, which is why I’m especially not into purely made-up words for cussing. It’s a missed opportunity to show something about your world. Do they have puritanical roots similar to ours? Has a focus on technology taken over everything? Do they have long-standing superstitions that are so ingrained, people no longer actively think about the original meaning?

Units of Measure

Wait, measurement? Like, math and science class “don’t forget the units” measurement?

Yes. Exactly.

Let’s start with time. If we’re on a planet, it’s likely enough that it rotates, so “days” are pretty safe. So are “years,” since that planet is probably revolves around a star. But what about “months”? Only if the planet has a moon—and just one. (Can you imagine the complexity of months with more than one moon?) That is, if your months are going to be anything like ours.

And “weeks”? Forget about it. So arbitrary. Easy enough for a world to have them, but there’s no real reason for them to be seven days long.

There are other measurements to consider, too. Say the world is a dimension parallel to ours, with some common history but a divergence at some point where they became even more scientifically focused. Might be a good idea to go metric. Inches and feet and gallons and ounces? Maybe not as likely.

Another problem is that many of our units are named after people. Personally, if I’m reading a story set in a world that has nothing to do with Earth, it jars me to see someone mention watts or volts or megahertz.

(I might just be picky. And a math teacher.)

We have to draw the line somewhere (or risk cluttering up the narrative), so I often let “hours” stand and pretend they’re roughly the length we know them to be, along with other terms. Sometimes it may best serve the story to stick with the familiar, even if it means miles and pounds.

But it’s a decision that should be actively made. Sometimes thinking up alternatives makes us think more deeply about our world … and can be a lot of fun, too.


John said...

Interesting article.
If your world is largely human then it's probably sensible to stick to standard units, the reader will deduce that you are translating for them. After all, you're writing in English not Moglish. Fantasy worlds tend to go for ancient measurements such as 'Leagues' for 'miles'.

There are lots of real calendars you can steal from, I remember one where they had 2,3 and 5 day weeks running simultaneously. But my view is a year is a year and a 'month' is an indeterminate period.

My view is keep it simple.

alishamarieklapheke said...

Great post!

I'm so so happy you mentioned the roots of swear words and slang. It destroys me when authors ignore the chance to really dig into the fantasy world.

I also think fellow fantasy writers should research and plan place names very carefully. We English-speakers are so accustomed to -ville, -ton, -burg, -bury, and any number of places named after people. Writers must watch for these little guys' root languages and for the people who may not exist in that alternate universe or whathaveyou.

I like to use history as a base for my fantasy, so I have less I need to make up and a place to ground my language.

Thanks for the post!
Alisha Klapheke

R.C. Lewis said...

True enough, it may serve a story best to keep it simple and stick with the familiar. But like I said, it should at least be a consideration. I think it's also important to think about consistency. If we change vocabulary in one category and not another, we should maybe think about whether there's a strong reason for doing so ... if it really makes sense in that world.

Good point on the place names! Even around the world today, different cultures have different customs or priorities when naming places. :)