Worldbuilding with Horses: Figurative Language

This post brought to you by my pet, Peeve.

One of the things writers have to do when they’re writing in any world that is not right here, right now, their own culture and their own world view, is to think about the language they’re using to evoke that world. It can seem tedious to have to consider every single word, but it’s part of the job. And no, many readers, who live in the same culture and have the same attitudes and are familiar with the same images, won’t notice.

But a few will. And the nature of those few is that they will let you know.

Figurative language invites the reader to view the world in a different way, but it does this by creating images and concepts that recall the familiar. “His skin was the color of dark chocolate.” “The air smelled like cinnamon, with an undertone of cold iron.” And that great USAian analogy, “The jousting court was roughly the size of a football field.”

The thing is, if your world doesn’t have chocolate, cinnamon, or American football, your character had better be a transplant from our world, because those concepts won’t exist without the objects on which they’re based. You can, and many writers do, simply change a word to an invented one–but that can come across as a little lazy. “The grublck-skinned warrior strode through air that smelled like hot schlargh and cold metal, seeming to fill the fhlooball field with the power of his presence.”

Uh. Yeah.

Better to rethink the imagery, and reflect on what your world does have that could be used instead. “His skin was the color of the rich dark earth in the Syndic’s garden.” “The air was warm and sweetly pungent, with an undertone of and cold iron.” “The jousting court was as big as a farmstead.”

Same applies to horses. Peeve here reminds me to note that in our essentially horseless society, a particular set of metaphors has slipped loose from its original meaning and caught hold of another that still makes sense. Sort of.

To wit: free rein and its converse, to rein in.

Now even otherwise well-educated writers and editors believe it’s free reign and, by apparent extension, reign in.

Free reign kind of get the point across. The original meant “to give the horse a free rein, to let him go where he will.” So if you give your whatevers the freedom to rule or reign over his own domain, well, all right. But there’s still the fact that reign in does not mean you restrict that freedom. Satan reigns in Hell, but as far as I know he has a fair amount of autonomy down there. What you need is rein in, which is to pull on the rein to command a horse to slow down or stop.

But what if the world doesn’t have horses in it? Or if it does, what if you want all your horses to be wild and free even when ridden, a la Shadowfax? No bridle or other head-restraint device means no rein. You’ll need to find another way to get the point across.

Same applies to other forms of tack that have worked their way into our language. Your character is unhappily saddled with the care and training of the bratty princess–but–what’s a saddle? Lord Obstreperous is champing at the bit to go to war against the Midforian Empire–uh. Bit. What’s a bit? Not to mention the generosity of his girth, except with no saddles, there’s no girth, because a girth is the strap that keeps the saddle on the horse.

Bratty princess kicks like a mule? Can’t have a mule without a horse, because a mule is the offspring of a horse and a donkey (which means you also have to have donkeys in your world in order to use this image). She can’t be stubborn in that particular way, either. And her Great-Aunt Prunisba can’t be horse-faced, or have teeth like a horse, or eat like one.

Even if that’s fairly obvious, watch out for the hidden snares. Lords jockeying for position in court? Only if you have races, and people who ride the animals in them. All that leather you’ve dressed your sexy protagonist in? Better have an animal for it to come from–something large, preferably cultivated, with a thick enough skin to be tanned and turned into clothing. (You might use humans for this, but beware the ick factor in your readers.) Sexy protag’s a real stud? That presumes animal breeding on a largeish scale, and male animals who carry a certain amount of prestige in the culture. You can use other animals–bulls and even dogs are possible–but the original stud is both the male horse and the farm he rules over (and stands at stud at).

Worldbuilding is the art of thinking things through. That goes all the way down to the origin of the words the writer uses. The more you think it through, the better grounded your world will be, and the more real it will seem to the readers.


For more details about the subjects mentioned in this blog, check out Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Questions answered, terms defined, and links, many links, to further investigations. With copious illustrations. Just $4.99 in all the popular formats (including Kindle, Nook, and Sony e-reader) from the Book View Cafe e-bookstore.

Or if you’d like to see some of the ways in which horses can be portrayed in fiction, try A Wind in Cairo, the magical story of a prince, a Turk, and an Arabian stallion; or Lord of the Two Lands, the tale of Alexander the Great (and his horse Boukephalas) in Egypt. For further historical delights, try The Dagger and the Cross: A Novel of the Crusades and its prequel, Alamut.




Worldbuilding with Horses: Figurative Language — 18 Comments

  1. Reign in? Really? I am shuddering.
    But thank you: this is a wonderful illustration of the way language is shaped and redolent with all the archaeology of our cultures, pastimes and daily lives.

  2. One shouldn’t derail plans in a medieval fantasy world, either. (And yes, I’ve seen that one somewhere.)

    Great post. Thank you muchly!

  3. One of the worst was the verb chosen for traversing the tall grass praire in his novel, Dances With Wolves — the author chose the word, “surfed.”

    Your California roots showing, dude!

    Love, C.

  4. It was not until my daughter got onto the crew team that I realized what ‘off their stroke’ meant. I’ve only been able to use the term non-metaphorically once.

  5. Surfing the prairie in the 1800s–ow! That’s a bad one.

    Brenda, that could work in a world with galleys or other oared craft. Maybe music, too? Cookery? Reapers?

    Another one that gets me is “tow the line.” It’s not about tote dat barge, or a tug of war. It’s “toe the line,” which nobody defniitively knows the origin of, but the image is fairly clear. Draw a line and get your crew (work crew, ship’s crew, military unit) to line up along it. Discipline, you know.

  6. My favorites are “firing” arrows before the invention of the gun, or having a “strong suit” before the invention of playing cards, let alone bridge.

  7. I do wonder how the cartoon ‘slave rowers’ did work — you know, chained to their oars. Rowing is a very skilled team task, like playing football. The Denver Broncos could not flog the defensive line and hope for a decent showing on the gridiron at kickoff. The navy of ancient Athens was crewed by free citizen rowers, probably sorted into tribal or family groups.

  8. Mary, I almost put “firing arrows” into the post, but It wasn’t horse-related, so…

    “Strong suit” could be misinterpreted as “armor”? Analogous in brain slippage to “free reign”?

    Rome, too, Brenda. Free and well paid. Galley slaves were a modern invention, projected onto the ancients by Hollywood and the potboiler industry.

  9. Mary, Judy, yes, the “firing” of arrows really gets me, as well. That was one of the first things that got me thinking along the lines of watching expressions when I stumbled on it while writing fantasy and tried for more varied expressions. (We have the same problem in German.)

    I also have a hard time using minutes or let alone seconds in a society that can be lucky to measure time in hours, with sun dials, maybe.

  10. The concept of time as measured in tiny, abstract units is really a modern one. You have to be raised in a culture that sees time that way. It’s really hard from that viewpoint to understand people and cultures who aren’t tightly bound by the clock–and that’s the majority of humans throughout history.

  11. Brenda: Exactly. 🙂

    But it’s like Judy said, we have a hard time understanding a society where being punctual to the minute is basically pointless. As a kid, I learned to tell time by watching the sun and the light, and it worked. I doubt that happens to many people anymore, though.

  12. This makes me wonder about the White Rabbit. Considering when he was written, and the age of the author, I wonder if he’s saying something about the perception of time as it shifted from broad strokes to minutes and seconds?

  13. >>Better to rethink the imagery, and reflect on what your world does have that could be used instead. “His skin was the color of the rich dark earth in the Syndic’s garden.”<<

    Instinctively this always seemed to be better to me anyway, because it performs double-duty: Describing both a character and your world all in one blow!