Been awhile since a Way With Worlds Update! So let’s find out where we are on my essays-rewritten-and-now-a-book on worldbuilding.
First, there’s a web page for the first book that gives you some idea of what I’m up to. You can also see the sample cover art – and you’re going to love the final cover!
I also got the book back from my editor. My editor is a “word of God type editor” – when it’s edited it’s done. So I spent an entire day going through her edits for the first book. After about ten hours of work, I have a book that is mostly ready for publication. One more read through and it’s ready for publishing (which itself is going to take a few months).
This brings up a really good lessons – there are several kinds of editors and you have to know how to work with them. Some are like a friendly guide with advice. Others are the Word Of God. Yet others are instructional. Each is different and you have to figure which works for you, your works, and your goals.
For instance, these books, though being creative and chatty are instructional. I needed a Word Of God editor on them.
On the other hand, some of my more intimate career books need a lighter touch as an editor. They’re chatty and friendly.
My upcoming Sailor Moon book has yet a different editor, a fansourced editor with an academic background and a fandom background, which seems perfect.
Now there’s also been a few schedule changes, so let’s recap!
I think you folks are going to love the books. It’s really my near-final word on Worldbuilding, and there’s a wealth of worldbuilding advice.
OK great news, Way With Worlds is going to editor this week!
Yes, I put in all the pre-reader feedback, did a run through, and will ship it off shortly. I expect the editor to take about two months so it’ll be a welcome break.
I’ve also got the cover artist working on the draft of cover 1. Its looking interesting so far, though the holidays slowed things down a bit.
So hang tight, Sanctumeers, it’s coming . . . and there’s more to stay tuned for . . .
So, I sat down recently to plan my next Way With Worlds Column – and realized that I had no more to write. I had all the rewrites I wanted. I had added all the new content I was inspired to add. I had completed my goal.
That goal? Revisit what I’d written over 15 years previously to update it with all the things I learned since then. Mission accomplished – but now there’s more to do.
I’m now going to gather all these columns and do what I should have done all those years ago – edit them into a book. Once that’s done I’ll have the definitive word on my theory of world building for the next fifteen or so years. That’ll also give people something to have and read and keep – much as I found some people had printed out all my old columns.
While editing the columns into a book (and doubtless improving and updating them), I’ll probably be inspired to write other columns. You’ll see those pop up here and there as the mood strikes me – and they will be integrated right back into the book.
This is going to get the full book treatment – multiple edits, organizing the columns into appropriate categories, and so on. I will surely tweak, rewrite, and expand the work, integrating the feedback and insights I’ve had since I started this mad effort. When it’s done it’ll be worth your time.
How long will this take? Not sure because I want to have fun with it – and because I’ve got other projects going on. Right now I’d guess the release would be no earlier than late 2015, and no later than a year from now.
Will there be other non-WWW writing here from me? Probably. You know me, I can’t shut up . . .
. . . though I should also get to some more generators. That Plot Twist one is still hovering over me, and you folks keep sending ideas . . .
Because of this, Realism is both something to seek in our work. It’s also a sign of successfully making a good world and thus a good tale from it – because people live what we create. However when we ask what realism is in an attempt to achieve it, it becomes much more difficult.
It’s difficult because realism is a trickster.
When you step back from a fiction that seems “realistic,” it may suddenly seem rather unrealistic. Yes, you related to that hero fighting a dragon, felt the fire on your face and smelled the blood – but she was fighting a dragon which isn’t exactly a realistic beast. Yet there, in the experience of a good fantasy novel, it seemed real.
At the same time, just having “realistic” elements in a tale or a game doesn’t mean it seems real. A world of cars and computers and gritty real-life experiences can seem detached, empty. The elements are real but it doesn’t “feel” real.
Sometimes dragons are more believable than accountants. Realism is a trickster.
This is because, like any good trickster, realism has more than one face – two, as far as i’m concerned. Your world and the tales and games within it need to show both faces to be truly “real.”
We can read the most outlandish science fiction or magic-drenched fantasy and be lost within it. We can follow things with little connection to our reality and live them. The unreal, the fantastic, the not-yet true can be very real in a good world and a good tale.
This is because a setting is believable if it has consistent rules and principles that are followed. It may be a realm of clockwork stars and sorcerous cats, but if people can recognize why and how, cause and effect they buy into it. We humans like rules, and when we can divine them in a work, then we can believe it.
Internal realism is this kind of realism -the realism of a setting that is consistent, if outlandish. It can be understood and comprehended and analyzed. Because there is “something” there, it can be believed. Because it can be believed, it seems real to people.
But Internal Realism has an equal partner.
When wizard cats battle among clockwork stars, we may find ourselves cheering the heroine because we understand her motivations. When superheroes thunderously battle across dimensions, the blow-by-rib-cracking blow stories make us feel each unrealistic punch. When people who never existed come from cities we’ve heard of, we “get” them. When we read of the glint of sunlight on a sea that never was, we “see” it.
No matter how untrue or fantastical or made-up, a good world with good characters, a good tale, gives us ways to connect to the characters and setting. We can relate to characters, feel their pain, gasp in wonder at a description, or nod at a man who never was describing a good Philly cheesesteak.
This is the realism that we connect to – pain and emotion, location and cuisine, a visual description that is evocative. It is the realism that connects us to the fictional through experiences we can understand. Everything else may be unrealistic, but there are elements of “real” we connect to.
These places of connection could be real historical events, believable technology, relatable characters, and visceral experiences. They can be many things, but all good External Realisms bridge the gap between us and the fictional.
Someone may fight dragons, but we relate to his need to keep an armor budget.
Both realisms are your goal as a worldbuilder and creator because they work together. Internal realism means your world is understandable and External Realism makes your world relatable. Both mean your audience connects to a setting and its characters – even if that setting is strange and alien.
If you lack Internal Realism, your world is ruleless, hard to relate to, the realistic parts floating in a sea of incomprehensibility.
If you lack External Realism, your world is one people can’t connect to. The characters aren’t relatable, the experiences lack visceral elements, the setting seems lifeless.
Together? Together you can have the most fantastical world that people can connect to. They might not consciously realize just how deep they are in a setting that is totally “unreal” because it’s so real.
Again, realism is a trickster.
How does one develop both kinds of realism? I’ve found these things help:
Developing both sides of Realism is a worthy quest indeed. It means you’ll create worlds people truly connect with -and works people truly connect with. These are powerful, affecting, and memorable.
In other words, very real.
I’ve spent plenty of time here talking about how to avoid over-communicating your world. There’s a good reason for this, which any gamer or reader or viewer knows – a giant infodump is distracting and reminds one they’re experiencing fiction. You can build a great world, but when you step out from behind the curtain to overexplain it, people become disengaged.
If you’re a person who peruses media, then you’ve also experienced the reverse of the infodump; people who don’t describe their world enough. As distracting as infodumps are, at least something is there to grasp, even if there’s so much you can’t get your hands around it. When there’s not enough information on what’s going on in the world, readers or players are just lost.
You can drown in too much information, or have such a drought of knowledge your interest withers and dies.
As of this writing, I feel like I’ve seen less well-explained worldbuilding in media over the years. Less attempts to bring me into the world, less attempts to connect or engage. I start craving a good infodump because at least I know something is there before I get overwhelmed and my eyes glaze over.
Why? Well let’s explore the reasons people might not explain their world enough.
Here’s what I’ve found. (more…)
After covering ways to tell people about your world without . . . well, telling people directly about your world with infodumps . .. . I wanted to focus on a few of my favorite ways to communicate about your worlds.
It is of course important to communicate your world to people. You don’t want to spray information around like a firehose of worldbuilding, but also you can easily leave people in the dark about how your setting functions.
Various books and films over time made me realize how the struggle not to drown our readers in information can also turn into the reverse – we don’t explain everything. We don’t want to infodump so we don’t think about how we have to inform our readers or players. We think readers or players “get” our world somehow.
But without some guidance, the reader or player or whatever eventually wonders “what the hell is going on?” Now if they signed on to be confused, fine, but in most cases you’re going to have to let them in on how your world functions somehow.
Just . . . without letting on you’re explaining things. Let’s face it, story flow aside, sometimes you have to figure out how to let people in on what’s going on and how the world looks.
Fortunately, there’s several ways you can do it.
There are certain moments that give us a chance to let people in on how the world works. Its’ not an infodump or an instruction manual, but just those moments where a reader or a player can suddenly go “aha,” that’s how it works. They might not even realize they learned something, but they know in one way or another.
The moment someone has to fix a broken device tells people how it works.
The moment someone gets married tells you about traditions.
A character’s perspective lets them understand something through their eyes – in an empathetic way.
There’s all these little moments that we can let people in on our world.
What I recommend doing is as a worldbuilder, when creating your book or game or film, look for these moments. These moments give you an opportunity to gauge how much your audience should know – and see where you can tell them.
I find that finding these moments, as you mature as a worldbuilder and creator, becomes more and more instinctive. You develop a sense of intimacy with both your work and your reader and can “hook them up” so the people perusing your work can “get” the world.
In turn, as you do this you can create them as well, without forcing them.
Let’s take a look at the ways to tell people about your world.
I look for what I call “narrative moments.” These are the little moments that let people in on what’s going on. It can be as mysterious as an oddly colored sunset hinting at pollution or as obvious as a newscast that tells what’s going on. These are the moments where your reader or player (hopefully subtly) gets an idea of “whats’ up”
These moments may not necessarily have to be in the story, but can be crafted if you have to leave a few clues. These are little extras, easter eggs hidden in plain site, to help the audience out when needed.
Good narrative moments are everywhere, really. I find that as you improve you need to create them less- and notice them more.
For worldbuilders, it’s a great blessing to discover your cast has what I call a Narrative Character or characters.
A Narrative Character is a character whose experiences can help the reader better understand the world. It may be someone new to a setting who learns (and thus readers learn with them) or someone knowledgeable who explains things to others (and in turn, instructs the reader). In their dialogue and communication, even internal dialogue, the reader can learn about the world as that learning is part of the story.
It doesn’t have to be an explanation – their feelings, emotions, reactions, and so on can tell a great deal about a story. The thrill of having what seems to be a boring meal lets your audience grasp the level of a food crisis. Scars from a disease tell your audience just how awful that plague is. An incoherent angry rant can reveal all sorts of thing – as can a cool, internal monologue.
If a character has many of these, then you have a good narrative character.
Narrative characters can easily be overdone or done wrong; they can become tour guides, mary sues/gary stus, or dull hangers-on there merely to tell the story. Narrative characters should be characters. Wether you find a good narrative character or create one, make sure they’re characters first.
Needless to say, I like to find a pre-existing character and use their experience to illustrate important points.
Of course if you have a first-person narrative, then you already have a potential narrative character. Otherwise I like to keep an idea of who can be a narrative character and switch perspectives now and then.
One of the best ways to communicate how things work in your world is to ensure that you write elements that are very visceral in the proper levels of details and address them properly. People get stuff “from the gut,” common and human (or human-like happenings) like:
Now these elements are likely to pop up in your stories. These elements are also likely to be illustrative of how your world works and how your characters and your culture work. Showing a complicated marital ritual (or even a memory of how one went) can show a culture is highly organized. Characters playing a popular game tells people the game is popular.
If you’re careful, tiny sentences, little moments, and many things that just happen to be in your stories can communicate the world to your readers. This is probably the most invisible way of doing things – and the way least likely to make the reader feel lectured too.
It also works well with nonverbal or limited verbal/explanatory descriptions.
I hope these methods help you out – they’re ones that have helped me. Just be aware of them, create them if you must, and hone your abilities so they flow naturally in your works. Done right, your audience knows enough and doesn’t know they know.
Which is just where you want them, totally adsorbed in your world without knowing how you helped them.
So having discussed TMI and the danger of infodumps, let’s ask a bit more about how you can communicate your world without everyone talking about it.
Or reading about it.
Or listening to a newscast
Or . . . you get the idea.
It’s easy in a game or story or what have you to try and tell people about the world by having characters do it. By speech or by writing or by The Exposition Channel, it’s easy to resort to the words of characters to fill people in. We’re used to talking to people, and sometimes we talk to our audience through people.
It’s infodumps in any way shape or form. Sure it might be an infodump wearing a funny hat, but an info dump it is.
Which of course is obvious as hell and instantly takes people out of the immersion. When you, the author, the worldbuilder, resort to an info dump it’s obviously “you” doing it. You’re about as concealed as a cartoon character hiding behind a tiny tree. Wile E. Coyote is not your role model, my dear worldbuilder.
So I’d like to cover ways you can tell people about the world without resorting to doing the grenade-fishing equivalent of information sharing. Many of these are things that you should be doing anyway, but we often forget them. Done right, they communicate a rich amount of information.
These methods can be extra powerful because they aren’t always consciously understood by the reader. They’re background detail, little things, but they can add up. When they do (consciously or not) people are really drawn into a world because it all just makes sense.
The reader or player may even get a tiny thrill of figuring it out – but really you set the stage for them to do it.
Imagine a character who stammers as they discuss something – indicating fear (and the reason for which may become clear). Think of a giant futuristic megalopolis where the air smells unnaturally clean (which tells you it’s over-processed or hints that something is wrong). A battlefield-turned-charnel house tells you of not just a battle lost, but of one lost so badly no one is retrieving bodies for some reason (say the war has moved on and is intense).
So much happens without someone explaining it. So much without newscasts and walls of text and four-page speeches.
The unsaid may even emphasize things everyone knows. Mark Ruffalo’s twitchy, troubled Bruce Banner in The Avengers, a living raw nerve, said more about the character than any exposition. We know he’s the Hulk – he made us understand what it was like to live with The Other Guy waiting to come out.
So let’s look at how you can communicate your world without shouting things from the metaphorical rooftops
Blushing, looking around, twitching, pacing. Wordless actions by characters say so much about them. In turn they can say a lot about the world.
If travelers to a particular town always seem tired, or are thought of as “always exhausted’ by a character, we know the journey there is always grueling. If a character nervously waves off a subject we know something makes them uncomfortable – and that may tell us something is up. If people are in a rush to get through a checkout, there’s a reason – and soon we find out a hurricane is approaching in the story.
If you’re designing non-human races, be aware of these kinds of communication as well. An alien’s tentacles may twitch when he’s nervous, or a fish-person’s gills turn blue when he’s embarrassed. Learning these involuntary actions can even be a vital part of some stories for the characters and the audience.
We’ve heard the term “speaking with our hands,” and if you think about it, gestures can play an enormous part of communications. Peace signs, shaking hands, putting a finger to one’s lips to indicate silence, winking knowingly – all forms of communication. Just think of many internet conversations would be easier if you could see someone’s expression and gestures (even if said gesture is a middle finger)
However these don’t use words. Characters gesturing or pointing things out is a great way to make a point (so to speak) and not talk about it. You can go into detail how a city block has great food – or you can have a character, when asked what’s the best restauraunt gesture helplessly around because it’s all good.
Speaking of . . .
Food is the fuel for sentient beings. Without it (in whatever form) they’re dead, and you don’t have much of a story except, perhaps, in the afterlife.
But food also says enormous things about culture, people, how they live. A simple description of a meal, how it’s gotten, how it smells, what’s in it, can say an enormous amount.
If your sword-wielding fantasy adventurer has six vegetarian meals in a town then you may realize that’s part of the culture. A character used to delicacies may balk at simpler fare they’ve never seen before (telling you a lot about them). Endless farmland surrounding a town tells you about the economy, how people eat, and perhaps even the politics (read about the Japanese Edo period to see a shining example)
As a personal example, I do a lot of my own cooking and eat healthy and natural. It means my kitchen is often a bit disordered, you can usually smell spices, and there’s usually a few unused pickling or storage jars as I cycle through experiments. But describe my kitchen and you’d get a half an idea of how I eat and learn a lot about me without ever talking about me.
And that’s if I don’t have, say, a jar of fermenting peppers around . . .
Cultures are about the exchange of things. As cells exchange materials, so do people, keeping the organism of society going.
Economics may indeed be the dismal science, but it’s a fantastic thing to help you describe the world.
Rich clothes and poorly kept building. Piles of coins and zeroes in a bank account. Shortages and surpluses. The signs of economic activity can say an incredible about of things without anyone having to tell you. A comment, the need to protect a vital shipment of materials, some poor-quality food at a high price all say something.
I live in Silicon Valley as of this writing, and as of this writing, rent is a big issue as it keeps going up. The reasons for that tell you a lot about the area and the economy, but merely knowing it alone is an alert that something is up.
The economics in your tales and games will say a lot about the world.
Clothes say a lot. Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, but clothes communicate a lot. A smartly-pressed business suit can tell someone you’re a professional (of what sort may be a question, admittedly). Casual clothes may say you don’t care or that you’re relaxing. A soldier’s uniform communicates a great deal about him or her, especially if its formal with a display of medals.
Clothes also say things about the wider culture. Traditional dress may say something about the culture, or let a person quickly size up a character. Little styles may say something about a character, from a meticulous hairstye to muddy shoes.
How characters dress can say a lot, and how populations say a lot. Working that into descriptions or character designs says things without using words (or many words).
Pencils and pens, weapons and cars, all of them say something about a world – without you having to explain too much.
Imagine if you have a fantasy world, but the roads are covered with “autocoaches, and the infernal glow of their storage globes.” You just explained you have a world of magical transport and even hinted that they’ve got glowing fuel tanks in a few words.
Or think of a world that’s like ours. A personal computer in’t unusual – a lack of one may be. If everyone seems to use a bicycle you’e just said a lot about the culture and economy. If everyone uses cash and not a credit card you’ve said something.
Things that people use everyday tell you about the world.
Now the sense of what artifacts mean can change with time and reference so you have to be aware of your current and future audience. But artifacts tell a lot.
What your world is made of, how it is made, says a great deal about it.
Think of how the world around you is built. Materials have to be shipped, workers do work, systems maintained. Roads are built for reasons. Architecture is engineering and history and science and art all in one, a building speaking to a given style or given economic limits or benefits.
It says a lot about a culture or a people or a person without you having to explain it directly.
Soaring towers speak of some effort of construction. Simple hovels could mean poverty – or a hermit’s simple dwelling. Decay can be a sign of poverty or war, shining brass of careful upkeep or pretension. A paved road replaced with gravel tells you of a decline in the economy.
Architecture is the part of your setting heavily engineered by characters, so it says a lot about who they are/were, their situation, and their world.
So here’s something to help you out. Think of the most important elements of your world that your audience has GOT to understand. List about 5 of them.
Now in the above categories (Expressions, Gestures, Cuisine, Economics, Clothes, Artifacts, and Architecture) ask how you could communicate those traits without explaining the meaning directly to your audience.
This kind of exercise is greta practice – in fact I bet you can think up plenty of categories I missed to try and communicate your world.
Good luck with communicating your world – and learning how to shut up so you can speak!
TMI is a slang term for “Too Much Information” (and one that hopefully is still relevant when your read this). It’s basically a remind you’ve said too much, usually in an embarrassing way about an equally embarrassing subjects. Writers and worldbuilders face their own risks with TMI when we communicate our worlds.
We can overdo telling people about them.
You know what I’m talking about. The infodump that goes on for pages, the loving detail in a character’s mind most normal human (and human-alikes) would never think like, the historical quotes that seem like their own stories. It’s when you tell too damn much, so much people are taken out of the story or game, out of the world, and into your notes.
Maybe we can’t resist doing it because we have so much to share. Maybe we want to make sure people understand. Maybe we want to make sure they’re not totally lost. Maybe we follow the style of an author or writer we loved and overdo it.
It seems that when we do it, we do it big-time.
People don’t need TMI. TMI distracts because there’s suddenly a Wall Of Exposition. TMI confuses as the context may make sense only in your head. TMI disappoints as it can spoil stories. TMI breaks the sense of realism as infodumps feel like they came from outside the world. TMI can even change your story, as a rollicking adventure becomes a three-page discussion of dragon biology.
We as worldbuilders have to learn to communicate the right amount of information. That’s hard.
TMI is actually hard to deliberately avoid because so much of it is emotional, or easy to misinterpret, or private. We don’t want to go the other direction and not reveal enough. In the end I’ve come to a simple conclusion.
Communications in your text, characters, story, exposition should:
This is an organic process, and empathy is a big part of it – you have to have a sense of both your characters and your audience. It’s art, not science, and I think awareness of it gets you halfway there – the other half is experience in doing it (or not doing it). Keep world building, keep writing – and keep taking feedback from your editors and your readers and your own reading.
However I can provide you guidance to know when you’ve gone into TMI territory. Setting the outer boundaries may help keep you out of TMI territory, or learn when you cross over.
Here’s where you may mess up:
Sometimes our writing and world building results in us shoving the fact we have a world in people’s faces. There’s a huge world out there and we feel we have to remind them of it. Suddenly there’s unneeded maps and infodumps and unneeded references. This takes people right out of the story or game where they experience your world, and puts them into knowing the world was constructed.
Worlds are experienced, not told about. Remember that. Help with the experience.
Oh, and doing can also seem like bragging. Don’t make the readers dislike you, it’s not conductive to their enjoyment.
Be it realistic or weird, sometimes we go into TMI mode because we want to show them everything we did. We’ve got to cram it in descriptions and dialogue, and . . . well at that point suddenly we’re giving too much information. There’s so much there, but it’s hard to help ourselves.
In real life I don’t launch into extensive discussions of public transport history without prompting. Your characters shouldn’t do the same.
In real life you don’t look at a bookstore and recall your entire past history of going there in florid detail. Neither should your characters unless that *is* the story.
Don’t go showing off extensive detail. Show what is appropriate for the stories, character, and setting. Your audience can fill in the gaps.
Besides, then you have enough for your eventual world guide book or tip guide for your game or whatever.
How many times do you need to know a character went to the bathroom? Or the sit through a five minute FMV discussing why this elf is a psychotic killer? Or . . . you get the idea. Realism can be overdone when people brag about it.
When your attempts to communicate to the audience are “look see how realistic I am, man I thought this out” then you have a problem. Your audience is probably going to give you the benefit of a doubt, you know? Working too hard to show realism becomes a source of TMI.
People are not going to be impressed by the realism of your world when its shoved in their face – and some things can be assumed (such as characters actually going to the bathroom or eating). People can give your characters and world credit for being realistic or at least having its own realism. They don’t need it described to them in painful detail.
Another form of TMI is “look at this weird thing I did, wow isn’t it awesome” where your story or game or play shows off, in painful detail, the crazy thing you did. You want them to know how innovative you are, how odd this is, as opposed to letting them feel the impact.
it’s almost a flipside of Aggressive Realism; instead of trying to convince people of the realism of your story more than you need, you try to bring them into the strange-yet-real part.
It’s really showing of how weird you can be but still pull the world off.
In reality, if it’s not weird for your characters, it shouldn’t seem weird to the audience. In fact, keep in mind the impact of weirdness is amplified when it seems normal.
TMI can affect many a worldbuilder and storytelling. In a few cases we probably need some writers to lean towards it a bit more as they get lost in tropes and assumptions.
In the end however serious TM ruins the experience of a work, it takes people out of the world and into you lecturing them or showing off.
Worldbuilding is about detail. When it comes to your stories or gmes or whatever, instead learn to communicate what’s important to people. The details you know let you tell the story – the details they find out let them understand it.
You just don’t need to know where all the trap doors and scenery is to enjoy the play.
So After being challenged on the issues of language and sentients over at Trilobyte Studios, I decided it was time to focus my rewrite of Way With Worlds on my language columns of the past.
And nothing is a better example of the issue of writing good language than how we refer to technology – and by technology I mean anything used to achieve a goal, from a spell to computers. For the sake of not having to say “technology and magic” over and over a gain, I’m going to refer to this as Technology most of the time.
When we talk Technology, we face the most fascinating question of how people using technology refer to it in our worlds. Think of how many words we have for tools and so forth. Think of how characters need to refer to technology in their worlds.
Think of how we often do it wrong.
Technobabble is a general term used for “scientific-sounding” BS-ey terminology used to refer to technology. Many science fiction stories and properties are infamous for this; “Star Trek” is often joked about, but it’s everywhere. It’s that term made from throwing together three scientific terms, it’s that spell that sounds like something no normal human (or elf) would describe in those words.
You know the kind of terms I’m talking about
I really didn’t get how bad it could get until I got into making the random generators of Seventh Sanctum. I’d make ones to describe weapons and technology, and suddenly I could see how words were just slammed together to make something vaguely technical. I could see how often mystical spells had come from The Home Of THe Assembled Adjective.
There’s something about Technobabble tat just feels wrong. It’s the uncanny valley of technology, because it’s got words but it doesn’t feel like ones humans would use.
It’s words made by an author, not a character.
And That’s the problem.
To discuss the best way to avoid Technobabble, I’d like to look at the problem and then step back on how to solve it. The reason for this is simply because we’re too used to technobabble, and we don’t always see it.
By now we’re used to fictionally crafted worlds, with their made-up terms, and of course their technobabble and magicbabble. It’s something we just sort of plow through and tolerate and really promise we won’t do . . . right before we do it. It keeps popping up.
Technobabble is kind of the Shingles of bad terminology.
I’ve found that there’s a few warning signs you’re using technobabble.
Classic Technobabble – When you’ve got Heisenberg Rail Cannons and Nomydium Alloy Quantum Stabilized Armor you have straight-up classic grade A technobabble. This is when you’ve thrown a lot of sciencey/magical words together that really don’t say much. It’s borders on being real babble.
Coldbabble – Coldbabble is technobabble that’s Technobabble’s evil twin – just evil in a different way. This is when your description sounds like a kind of operating instructions or label. It’s a spell that an actual person calls “A Level 3 Muscle Mending Spell” or a technology referred to as a “Flesh Restoration Pod.” It says something, but not in the way most people would
Transplant Babble – This occurs when people graft terminology from one setting or one idea into another with no good reason. It’s fantasy characters referring to light spells as Lasers – just so the audience gets it when they wouldn’t. This is a less common issue, but now and then you’ll see it.
So how do you avoid these traps -and others I doubtlessly haven’t identified? It’s simple.
You’ve got to stop naming technology and ask what it means to the people using it. It’s all about the characters.
Why do we have special terms for technology (and magic and other tools)? Simple – we need to refer to them properly.
We need to call a hammer a hammer when you just need someone to hand it to you. We may refer to a computer with more detailed description, like make or model, to communicate that information. We need to refer to tools so we can talk about them.
Just like anything else.
The key to writing good technical language and avoiding Technobabble is to ask what language is needed to refer to said tools – in the setting, by the characters.
In fact, there may be many ways to refer to the same thing. The reason Technobabble of all kinds often seems weird as characters will use the same made-up terms in all situations.
Let’s look at these factors.
Factor 1 – Context
Terminology depends on context. Who is speaking, who is being spoken too. Technology of all kinds will have terms relevant to the context it is used in.
Technology will have multiple names but all should be meaningful.
The pain in your leg probably has a very long latinized term your doctor uses – and it describes the symptom in a detailed way. A car engine is properly an internal combustion engine – but who curses their “internal combustion engine” for not working? We refer to an explosive called TNT, but the name is derived from the chemical formula of the explosive because do you want to use that long string of syllables every time?
Language to refer to technology should:
Factor 2 – Usefulness
Language to refer to things will vary with the situation. It’s all well and good to go looking for a Hyperflux Restablizing Neutronium Balance Capacitor, but sometimes you just need to “find the damn capacitor.” you don’t want to refer to a spell as a “Gate Spell” during your final magi exam when there’s 22 different variants of it.
We use different language for technology depending on the situation. All technology has should have ways to be referred to based on the situation itself. You really don’t have time to ask for “Mordaks Third Level Incandescent Sphere of Fiery Doom” when you really want to yell “Fireball them!” as you run away from Rabid kobolds.
Language to refer to technology should:
Factor 3 – Person
Technical terminology used – used to communicate with people – will vary among the people talking. An engineer, a scientist, and a disgruntled user are going to refer to computer parts and processes in very different ways. A wizard, a priest, and a warrior may refer to spellcraft differently.
There will thus be different words used by people in a group, among people in a group, and between groups. These can be as varied as any other set of words – because people are varied.
Consider the possible influences:
Individual characters will often have different tastes in how they refer to technology. You need to understand how the people in your setting see the different technologies and refer to them. When their discussion can sound like the last time you and a friend tried to set up a video game set or fix a car, then you’ve made technological language realistic.
Language to refer to technology should:
Terminology changes. Grab one of the handy slang dictionaries available at bookstores or online, and you may be amazed what words used to mean and what phrases vanished. “Hilary” used to be a man’s name. The term “mook” has had a variety of meanings. Even as you read these now, these simple references may have changed.
In creating terms in your stories, ask yourself how terms may have changed over time – or be preserved. A tradition-bound culture may use archaic references, a culture with a lot of immigration may adapt a rainbow of foreign words quickly. THis happens to technology as well – do we refer to cars as motorcars anymore in america?
A quick guide to see how time affects technical terms:
Language to refer to technology should:
Technical terminology shouldn’t be obscure unless there’s a good reason for that. It’s part of language, part of the language of your setting, and thus should serve the needs of those using that language. When you keep the human (well, sentient) factor in mind, it becomes very clear why Technobabble fails.
Technobabble fails because it’s unrealistic and doesn’t fit the characters and world. It’s when you reach in from outside and inflict language on your setting.
Instead, let the language come from your setting. It’s much more realistic.
Over at Trilobyte Studios, my friend Blaze read my columns on races, and had some interesting insights – and some disagreements with me.
Though explores concepts of sentient versus sapient species and proper definition, one thing that stood out for me is that he argues about my thesis that “we might as well use race and species interchangeably since many people do.” He felt that was improper.
It’s not hard to see why. Not only is it improper, Blaze actually has had to explain English to non-English speakers (never an easy job with English) and is aware of the need of clarity. Though we both deal in language, we clearly approach it differently and I wanted to explore that issue as it relates to world building
I argued it was best to surrender to the overwhelming language issue and lump it. Blaze argues that we should not, and makes a case for proper language usage. I myself, after reading his entries, think he has a point – indeed, those of us doing and teaching worldbuilding should consider proper language. How else do we communicate?
My take, however, is that for the purpose of my work, that I surrender to the improper terminology and do my best to qualify it. It broadens and makes my work more relevant and perhaps avoid nit-picking. I’m not there to try and rectify language, I’m about technique.
However, maybe I should be. After all if I’m going to write on worldbuilding perhaps I should make a stand for proper language. Besides, improper language normally drives me up a wall.
Oh, I don’t have an answer to this. Sorry. In fact I don’t expect to have an answer until I bundle up and re-edit these essays into a book. By then maybe I’ll have an idea of if I want to work on changing language. Or maybe not.
But I’m glad that someone talked about it.
Language is extremely important when discussing worldbuilding. Yes, that’s partially a big duh – but Blaze made me think about how important it is to have standards in language. Casual terminology and such might not be the right words to discuss this.
Consider all the challenges facing worldbuilders when it comes to even talking about the craft:
It almost makes you amazed anyone can craft a coherent setting – yet we do. Many of us build unforgettable vistas that are just behind our eyes or pixels on a screen. And yet at its core is language.
Thus I think we worldbuilders should take the time to weigh our language carefully. What words do we use? What is appropriate? What is not appropriate/ What communicates best?
We might not even agree on everything, but we can at least hone our knowledge, our vocabulary, and our use of words to make sure we’re using them right.
In fact, this leads me to a most interesting question – one that has no answer yet – but one we should consider .. .
Blaze made me wonder if perhaps we worldbuilders should take some effort, be it debate or book or web page, to come up with a kind of “language guide” to worldbuilding. SOmething that worldbuilders could pick up and get the best idea of how to use words, communicate, and employ language in creation, documentation,and communication of our world.
Just consider this:
Maybe we worldbuilders should take a stab at finding a way to codify our passion with useful terminology.
We might even invent some new, needed words.
So I leave this open to you, dear reader. What do you think? Should we worldbuilders work to hone our language and terminology a bit more? Could we?
I don’t have an answer. But maybe some of us can together . . .