Some more from the old online worldbuilding course…

If we begin with the basic concept that no one literally speaks English in either Westeros or in the galaxy far, far away in which Star Wars takes place then we have to assume that the Georges R.R. Martin and Lucas have done us the service of translating (at least most of) what their characters say into English (even if that comes via subtitles) so we don’t have to first learn a new, invented language in order to enjoy those stories. That leaves us with this question: To translate or not to translate?

I say, at least ninety percent of the time, translate.

And I tackled this issue in The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction:

In the old Battlestar Galactica television series from the late seventies, our heroes are humans who have been separated from the rest of humanity and are on a pilgrimage to find what has for them become the legendary Earth. It’s naturally assumed that though the actors are speaking English, their characters are speaking their own native language, and they’ve got their own system of weights and measures. To emphasize this point, the characters say “Wait a centon” instead of “Wait a minute.”

I’m sure there are hardcore fans out there who will find my opinion sacrilegious, but I believe that was a terrible decision. If a centon and a minute are essentially the same, why not translate centon into minute and get on with telling the story? No episode was improved by the fact that they worked in centons instead of minutes.

And I stand by that opinion. Translate anything, not just units of weight and measure, into English (or the metric system, if you like, in science fiction) in the same way you’re translating the words for floor, table, love, etc.

But then… not always!

I worked for almost fifteen years as an editor for TSR and Wizards of the Coast, and worked primarily on the Forgotten Realms novel line. I’ve often pointed out that the dark elves of the Forgotten Realms world wear a cloak called a piwafwi, and you’ll see it called that throughout dozens and dozens of books. So why not translate “piwafwi” into “cloak”? Well, it turns out that a piwafwi is a very specific kind of cloak, made only by the dark elves. It has some magical properties that help the wearer go unseen. It looks like a cloak, and in every other way functions like a cloak, but this very specific thing does not exist in the real world. There is no English word for it. It is a piwafwi. So, adopt this rule:

If there is a clear real-world analog, translate it. If not, name it.

But then how then do we come up with words like piwafwi?

First off, no, you do not need to literally create a new language before you can write a science fiction or fantasy novel, even if there might have been an author (like Tolkien) who did so, or someone who came along later to create Klingon deep into the life of the Star Trek franchise. If you have a background in that sort of thing and approach it more as a separate hobby than as a necessary component to your writing, have fun. But no matter how you slice it, time spent over-worldbuilding is time spent away from writing!

Free, then, of the requirement to create our own version of Elvish, how best to create unique individual words for when they are necessary?

I really don’t want to just say: String together letters that you think sound cool. But then, I’ve done exactly that to come up with names for characters, planets, cities… all sorts of things. In fact, I would bet that at least half the names of your favorite fantasy characters, places, and so on, were generated in just that way.

I worked with an author—and you would recognize her name—who told me that she used placeholders throughout her text almost until the last second, and when I asked her how to pronounce one character’s name she said, “I don’t know, it’s F3 on my keyboard.” Now, I am not recommending that. I tend to think you should be able to call your characters by name as soon in your writing process as possible to get to know them as well as you can in order to bring them properly to life. But I know just as many authors who fall into work-stopping obsession over finding exactly the right name, suffering over every syllable until they just freeze up. And you don’t want to freeze up!

Here’s a little more general practical advice on the subjects of language:

1. Avoid creating new rules for usage when you don’t need to. From Appendix A of my book Writing Monsters:

A good rule of thumb when creating new things—monsters, animals, ranks and titles, and so on—is rather than create a new rule of grammar and usage to go with it, simply find the nearest real-world analog to that new thing and follow that rule.

For monsters, we’ll want to fall back on the rules for animals. Though we’ve seen a few examples, especially from H.P. Lovecraft, where the names of the monsters were capitalized, I suggest you let that be another of his many oddball quirks.

So if you’ve created a monster called a “bloodstalker,” and it’s clear that there’s more than one bloodstalker out there, it would be bloodstalker, lowercase b, the same way the in bear would be lowercase if your characters were being hunted by a bear.

A possible exception would be if in some way that was a sort of brand name—appropriate maybe in science fiction but likely never in fantasy. So Dr. Morpheus has created the Bloodstalker, and you’d use the initial cap the same way you would for, say, a make of car: Dodge Caravan or Plymouth Destructinoid.

Of course, if the monster has a proper name, like my name is Phil, then you would follow that basic rule, i.e., Kong, Godzilla, etc. 

This will also hold true for ranks and titles, so be careful with initial caps:

“Good morning, Lieutenant Galen,” Bronwyn said, using the capital L when the rank and name are used together.

“Good morning to you, too, Captain,” replied Galen, using the capital C because the rank or title is used in place of a name, while leaving it lowercase when referring to someone in the generic, as follows. “Have you seen any of the colonels around?”

2. Avoid generic words with an initial cap in place of a proper name. I railed about this at length five years ago, but in short, if your characters live in the City and go to the Temple to meet with the Priest to talk about what to do about the Mercenary—and none of those places or people have an actual name, you’re just not working hard enough. People name things! My name isn’t the Editor, it’s Phil. I live in a town called Sammamish, not the Town.

3. Google everything! Got a great name for your hero… for any and every character in your story? Google them! If they’re also characters in Game of Thrones, even if that name has been around for millennia before George R.R. Martin was born, pass on it. If it shows up in your fantasy novel, a significant number of readers will assume you knifed it from GoT. Sometimes, clever names could even get you into (admittedly highly unlikely) legal trouble if they’re someone else’s trademark, but you’re probably not going to set your space opera story aboard the starship Coca-Cola.At least, I hope not! This won’t be necessary if your characters have names like Jon (even though there’s a Jon in Game of Thrones) or Luke (Star Wars) but Tyrian, Cersei, Vader, and Yoda? Nope, nope, nope, and nope.

—Philip Athans

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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. Pingback: FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION AS INVENTED HISTORY | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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