Fantasy Worldbuilding: Beware the Wording!
There’s a lot of freedom in writing fantasy, which is one of the reasons it’s my favorite genre. In addition to the sheer magnitude and epic fun of massive battles, cool swordplay, kingdom politics and dragons and danger, there’s also the enjoyment that comes with worldbuilding. You can have everything from mysterious powers to elemental control to magic-replacing-technology in a way that weaves the modern and medieval together.
But where worldbuilding in fantasy gets tricky – particularly high-fantasy or epic fantasy as opposed to fantasy-lite – is that the deeper you go into the the process and the more unique and self-acctuating the world becomes, the more thought must be put into it to prevent misplaced concepts from popping up.
What do I mean by misplaced concepts? Consider this scenario: you’re reading a high fantasy novel in the vein of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings and all of a sudden, they make reference to Jesus Christ.
For most readers, stumbling across this name would take them out of the experience. Why? Well, religious beliefs aside, the truly jarring thing is that the reader knows GoT and LotR have no concept of Jesus Christ as either a historical or religious figure. It’s set in a completely different world with its own history and religion, and therefore the name feels misplaced.
This is a principle that deserves to be given a lot of thought in fantasy – perhaps more than it currently is. While fantasy-lite gets a bit of a pass for being slightly more shallow in the worldbuilding – and therefore using familiar concepts to give the readers a bit more stability on the page – epic high-fantasy with in-depth worldbuilding can and probably should draw more from the concepts of its world than from ours.
If your story has fairytales, they must have some concept of fairies.
If you’re going to use a phrase that’s common to our world, ask yourself if there would be any tweaks to it. There have been many times I’ve read a fantasy book that quotes a Bible passage (eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, etc) or uses our modern calendar months (January, July, August) without seeming to consider the origins of these phrases, and it always pulls me out of the setting a little bit.
In our modern age, we have common phrases used in both religious and secular circles that are pulled from religious texts because we have those texts to pull from. We also have these months named after Roman emperors. Without a Bible, for example, these phrases have to originate elsewhere (and may need to be a bit different to keep the realism afloat). Without Roman emperors, chances are your fantasy setting would not have the same names for their months.
If someone is “penniless”, gets “nickled and dimed”, or is “in for a dime, in for a dollar,” they must have the concept of pennies, nickles, dimes and dollars in their world. (In my novel Dream Reaper, I skimmed around this with things like “in for an airin, in for an ora“, which are the coins at opposite ends of their wage spectrum.
If they celebrate Christmas, they must have a concept of Christ, Yule for Yuletide, etc.
So, what’s the solution to having these kinds of things crop up in your draft? I won’t say it’s simple, but I will say this is where worldbuilding can be REALLY fun!
Invent your own holidays! Build your currency system! Dream up historical or religious figures, name your months, create your own setting-specific swears! Particularly in fantasy – whether high, lite, epic, urban, etc. – there is so much sandbox fun you can have. The more supernatural and world-specific influences there are in the story, the more opportunity you have as a writer to fine-tune those details and make them unique to you.
So go wild, my friends, and have fun!