I had a couple other things in mind to write about this week, but then as I was working through assignments for the current run of my online worldbuilding course for Writer’s Digest I was moved to action!

This week we’re talking about government and religion—I know, your parents told you not to do that, but it’s kinda hard to talk about worldbuilding and leave those out. Of the seven students in this run of the course, six people sent in assignments for this week, and of those six, three of them called their governmental bodies the Council.

Okay, so, before you worry that if you take one of my online courses I’m going to bitch about you in public, please know that all three of those people wrote amazing stuff. And I’m seriously not just saying that. I’m always delighted by the quality of the work that comes through these courses, and this week in this class was no different. I’m not complaining about the quality of the writing, just this one thing, this single word that I see over and over again, and not just in 50% of the worldbuilding course assignments but in probably that same percentage of full manuscripts that come across my desk. One after another, after another, after another.

So this is it.

Today I begin a one-man crusade against the Council!

The Council must be stopped!

First off, please refer to my rant against the use of common nouns with an initial cap here. Absorb that, embrace that, be sensitized to that, and also please notice that the Council is the very first entry on my list of (negative) examples.

Before you panic because the Council is all over your work in progress, know that there’s about a 99% chance that your fantasy or science fiction governmental body can work exactly as you describe, because like the talented people in this course who thought through the function of that body and made its decisions and actions personal, so their characters were actually affected by its policies and decisions, most likely all you need to do to fix your Council-infected work in progress is search for the word Council and replace it with… anything else!

I’ve said this before, but let me say it again: Maybe 90% of worldbuilding is naming things. So then why would you want your things named the same as everybody else’s (or even half of everybody else’s) things?

I’ll answer that for you: You don’t!

You want the names of your worldbuilding elements to reflect the creative energy you’ve put into those details and the creative energy and individual artistry you’ve put into your characters, your story—every aspect of your writing.

What to call it then?

My thesaurus app returned:

1 the town council: municipal authority, local government, administration, executive, chamber, assembly, corporation.

2 the Student Council: advisory body, board, committee, brain trust, commission, assembly, panel; synod, convocation.

3 that evening, she held a family council: meeting, gathering, conference, conclave, assembly.

Any of those will do for now.

Thanks to Google Translate here is Council in a few other languages, which one works for you?

Azerbaijani: Şurası

Basque: Kontseilua

Corsican: Cunsigliu

Finnish: neuvosto

Hawaiian: Ka’aha’ōlelo

Malagasy: Filan-kevitra

Samoan: Fono

Sudanese: dewan

Zulu: Umkhandlu

Or, y’know… just make something up!

You can do it! The Council must be stopped! Who’s with me?


—Philip Athans



About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. JM Williams says:

    I appreciate the point, but disagree with the idea that you shouldn’t use a word like council, if it is appropriate. It’s a very generic English word, that has a very specific meaning, and often it is the right one. Most local city governments, at least in the US, call their governing body a City Council, not a Local Government Administrative Body or whatever. That’s how language works. We have common terminology. Of course that doesn’t mean you can’t spice it up with an adjectve like the Black Council, or the Iron Council. I am also very much against throwing in foreign language or exotic words for no other reason than to be different. It’s like how Scott Lynch uses the term “optics” in his Locke Lamora books instead of “glasses”. The problem with that case is that optics has a certain connotation in modern English. The first time I read it, I assumed he was talking some sort of steampunk technological devices. It took a long time for me to understand he mean normal, run of the mill glasses. Ostentation for no other reason but to be unique is bad writing, in my opinion.

  2. keithakenny says:

    As a general term I would agree with you, ‘council’ conveys neither mystery nor alien/fantasy cachet. What if that is the intent? In my novel, the Star Council is a cover intended to sound benign and collegial rather than totalitarian, and they have many high-sounding reasons for culling the population. One of the reveals is “what really is the Star Council?”

  3. Philip Athans says:

    With this post, I was going for the “shock value,” but as always, all advice from me contains the same caveat:

    Always do this unless you get a better idea or doing somethiung else works better for that moment in that story.

    Never do the other thing unless you really want to, have thought it through, and it moves your story forward in that moment in an interesting way.

    Likewise, the Council or the council.

    In fact, in my online worldbuilding class and in a seminar at Writer’s Digest’s online SF conference a few weeks ago, I pulled out this example from Frank Herbert’s Chapterhouse: Dune…

    The stir as they came down and circled over Sheeana’s Desert Watch Center awakened her.

    Desert Watch Center. We’re at it again. We haven’t really named it… no more than we gave a name to this planet. Chapterhouse! What kind of a name is that? Desert Watch Center! Description, not a name. Accent on the temporary.

    As they descended, she saw confirmations of her thought. The sense of temporary housing was amplified by spartan abruptness in all junctures. No softness, no rounding of any connection. This attaches here and that goes over here. All joined by removable connectors.

    If the generic name has specific meaning in your story, if it moves things forward because it’s simple and straighforward, and that shows us something about the people who live in that world–I love it! Still, I have reason to believe that the greater percentage of Councils is the result of just a drop less creativity than should otherwise be applied.

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