Writing is more difficult than people tend to give it credit for. Not only do you have to come up with a compelling story, you also have to write it – which means you have to choose from amongst tens or even hundreds of thousands of words to find exactly the right ones to convey your particular message.
This is difficult enough for mystery or literary fiction writers. You guys have to massage language until it sends readers down the right false trails or builds the perfect memory to explore. I can’t even imagine what poets go through in order to find their perfect words. With so many synonyms, each meaning almost the same thing, the process of luring out the right one must be fascinating.
As usual, though, I’m talking primarily to genre writers – that is, to fantasy writers, and to any other types of speculative fiction (SF) writers who have enough overlap to find me relevant.
Because for us, language has a job that it doesn’t need to do outside of SF; it’s the mortar that holds the bricks of our worldbuilding together. We use familiar language to make our readers feel comfortable, and we wander into strange and alien linguistic territory when we want to remind readers that they’re not in Kansas anymore.
The thing that writers need to remember is: playing with language comes with a cost. There’s a reason it’s so effective as a tool; as the cornerstones of communication, words have a lot of power. Just as the right one can bring someone in and bind them to a cause, the wrong one can slap them across the face make them turn their back on you before you even know you’ve done something wrong.
The farther out you go on the linguistic tightrope, the more careful you need to be.
Words Have Meaning
This maxim is deceptively simple. If you’re a writer, you know what words are and you know what they do – at least, you’d better. If you haven’t figured that part out, I can’t help you, and also, I’m not really sure how you’re reading this, so … well done, I guess.
I’m not coming in to try and explain that “ferociously” means “with ferocity”, and “ferocity” means “the state of being ferocious”, and “ferocious” means “fierce, cruel, or violent”, so why aren’t you using one of those three words instead? Although, it might be worth sitting down for a second and asking yourself if ‘ferociously’ really adds something that ‘fiercely’ wouldn’t have. Bigger isn’t always better.
I’m talking about those tricky words that seem to get thrown around without much consideration when fantasy writers sit down and get to work.
Consider, for example:
Scarlet and copper and auburn aren’t the same color, no matter how many times you want to refer to someone’s red hair – although vermillion is pretty close, for anyone who’s looking for yet another synonym. Chartreuse is neither yellow nor green (it sits between them, the way orange sits between red and yellow) and amaranth actually is a specific color (it looks sort of like magenta). It’s not just a pretty-sounding fantasy word.
A pentacle and a pentagram aren’t the same thing: a pentagram is just a star, the way you drew one as a kid, with the middle lines running through the shape before you erased them. A pentacle is a pentagram with a circle around it. Pentapox are what you get when you’re trying to escape New Ozai without getting hassled.
“Ethereal” and “ephemeral” don’t mean the same thing, although something might be both; “greaves” and “pauldrons” and “bracers” are all very specific pieces of armor that go on very specific parts of the body (shins, shoulders, forearms) and not any others. A wyvern is a type of dragon that has two hind legs and wings where the forelegs would be. A gryphon is a mythical beast with the hindquarters of a lion and the head, wings, and forelegs of an eagle; a gyrfalcon is very real. It is the largest falcon, and if you’d like, you can watch one murder a Canada goose to the dulcet tones of some truly heinous techno.
I could, of course, go on. I’m sure most readers could add a handful of their own examples to my list as well. The point is that there’s a lot of careless writing out there, and a lot of writers seem to have no problem taking words they’ve heard before and assuming that they probably know the meaning from context. When someone who does know the word comes along, the experience is jarring at best, infuriating at worst. Watching an author take something that exists and force it to mean something else feels uncomfortable to me, like I’m watching some kind of Frankenstonian experiment gone wrong.
Names are Words, Too
This is where it gets tricky, especially for fantasy writers.
We look around now, and it seems like there are two categories of names: you have names like Rachel or Michael or Katherine or Timothy – name that are, you know, names – and then you have the other ones like Apple and Blue Ivy and Pilot.
Some people know where I’m going with this.
The problem is that on some level, there’s really no such thing as a name. At some point, every name that we now think of as being sensible and appropriate used to mean something else. “Michael” originally traces back to Hebrew, and a sort of awesome rhetorical question: “Who is like God?” Having an archangel with that name is kind of fantastic; his mere existence challenged everyone to reflect on the ways in which they could never measure up to God. “Michael” is a nice enough name, and it’s come a long way since then, but it’s interesting to keep in mind that it’s sort of the ancient equivalent of naming your daughter “Can you set as nice a table as Martha Stewart?”. Two thousand years from now, that might not look as ridiculous as it seems today.
“Rachel”, incidentally, means “sheep”, “Katherine” does not mean “pure” in spite of what a lot of babyname websites will try to tell you. It doesn’t come from “katharos”; the “h” was added in later. The root name is actually the Greek or Russian “Ekaterine” and roughly means “something to do with Hekateros, the Greek god of a weird rustic dance”.
“Timothy” is a type of european grass, making “Apple” and “Blue Ivy” look pretty reasonable, all things considered.
And then we get to names like Autumn, or Joy. Both of these names are just flat-out words that we still use as a regular part of our everyday speech; we’ve just decided that it’s also acceptable to use them as names. Some months like “April” and “June” get a free pass when it comes to that, while “August” and “January” are under closer supervision. “Joy” is acceptable, but “Ire” seems like a bizarre thing to name a baby, and I think naming a kid “Frustration” might actually count as cruelty.
Many common surnames are either simple descriptions of their bearer’s profession (think: Cooper, Carter, Fowler, Howard, and Thatcher) or identify a parent (O’Donnell, MacCleod, Ferguson, Johannesson).
Even completely artificial names, like the names of companies or products, have meanings and history and souls. If this listicle is to be believed, Canon cameras and Reebok shoes both chose their names by modifying existing words whose meanings they liked. Pepsi’s brand name comes from the word “dispepsia”, meaning “indigestion”. The name seems like a nonsense-word to us today, given validity only because generations before us accepted it, but when it first originated it did so in a culture which understood the context. It’s sort of like “Lyft” makes sense as a sort of a taxi service because we’re used to the idiom “give me a lift”. If the company remains successful but the idiom dies out, future generations will just think the company has a strange made-up name.
We’ll get to be smug about it – but we’ll also be dead, so I’m not sure if we come out as winners on that one.
There Are No Rules
The point is, there is no room for complacency where word choice is concerned. Every name, every word, is a reflection of the culture and the people around it. Common, beloved language is common for a reason, and taboos or curses get people’s backs up because they represent cultural disharmony. Every society is going to have some words that they hold as sacred, and some that cut to the bone – and those harsh words aren’t always going to be “damn” or “curses” or “a pox on you”, no matter how safe and familiar those curses might seem.
Just because another author did things a certain way in the past doesn’t make it the right answer. After all, the only person who can really know the context of your story is you.
When it comes to making choices as a writer, you have to start thinking about what judgment calls are being made by various groups of people. You have to ask why they’re making these calls, and to what extent various members of the culture that you’re writing will follow or break away from these trends.
When you’re naming people, or places, or things, you have to start wondering what your characters would value as a culture enough to be naming their children after it – and then ask yourself how long these names have been around, how much they’ve changed. Does the person, place, or thing like the name it’s been given?
When you’re describing someone or something, think about all of the different ways that someone could look at this thing. Remember who your narrator is, and ask yourself: what words would they be using right now, given all of the options available to them?
There are of course no objective universal answers; if it were that easy, everyone would be a writer. But it’s time that more people stopped taking words for granted, and remembered that they’re just as important as characters, or settings, or plot twists. If you take care of them, they’ll reward you with breathtaking works; but if you ignore them, abuse them, the resulting swampy disaster will be nobody’s fault but your own.