Worldbuilding is something we think about a lot when we’re writing fantasy and science fiction. Generally we mean the physical and perhaps metaphysical world when we talk about worldbuilding. On top of that, we mean society and culture — from broad questions about how society is structured to small-scale questions about how individuals behave toward one another, and how they think they should behave toward one another.
On top of all that, we have a lot of details to think about — among other things, and perhaps most important, details of the language. By “details of the language” I mean aphorisms, turns of phrase, slang, and metaphors.
Personally, I find that:
a) There are hardly any other details which are more difficult to come up with; but
b) These details add a whole lot of depth to your world.
When you’re writing a secondary world fantasy, when you don’t want it to feel like modern America, then you can’t use modern American turns of phrase. In the Death’s Lady trilogy, when the young king makes his plea for Tenai to make a public show of her allegiance to him, he doesn’t say Please. He says, Set your banner beneath mine on the tower. Let all men see that you are mine. Then their violent tongues will cleave to their teeth in fear and they will be quiet and stay in their homes. No one in modern America would say that. Just as important, no one in a historical novel would say that either. This is clearly not our world. The history that leads to Set your banner beneath mine on the tower clearly exists, but it isn’t our history. The Death’s Lady series was particularly interesting to write because it called for modern American language and tone, but it also called for high fantasy language and tone. When Tenai is in our world, she still doesn’t use American turns of phrase, though everyone around her does. When Daniel is in her world, he continues to speak and think like an American, but he’s surrounded by people who don’t. Even when the language of the secondary world is clearly distinctive, however, it has to remain easily comprehensible to the reader. When Tenai says, Let the swallows carry word of this south, she’s using an allusion, or perhaps a metaphor, that arises from history that obviously isn’t ours, while still being perfectly understandable to the reader. When worldbuilding, on a per-word basis, no other details offers more bang for the buck than turns of phrase, slang, metaphors, and aphorisms. It’s cheating to say this, of course, because aphorisms, slang, and so on are generally pithy. Still, aphorisms in particular are bits of culture-specific wisdom. If someone says, “There’s no point shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted” or “If the shoe fits, wear it,” this is clearly a saying that has history in the world. Throwing aphorisms into your secondary-world fantasy novel instantly creates a feeling of history and broad culture. Or they do as long as they fit the culture, the world, and the story.
Because they’re so dense with meaning, aphorisms can be difficult to invent. They have to encapsulate something that would be considered true by people in the culture you’re creating, and they have to fit the material culture as well as the social culture, and then you have to deploy them at a reasonable moment that fits the story. One method of creating an aphorism is to take one that already exists and rephrase it. For example, in my Tuyo series, one of the characters comments, Nothing like grabbing two hairs from your horse’s tail when it’s already away through the gate. This is exactly like saying, There’s no point shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. That’s the aphorism I had in mind, but I rephrased it enough to make it sound like it belongs to a different history, a different culture.
You can also create aphorisms from nothing. Another example from Tuyo: at one point, the protagonist comments, We say that when the tiger comes, all quarrels end. If there’s an American saying like that, I can’t think of it right now. When I wrote that line, I was just thinking of the human tendency to move closer together when nervous, something we see every time we start telling ghost stories around a campfire. I came up with a saying that both expressed that idea and fit the culture explored in that novel.
Quite a few examples of wonderful use of metaphor and slang come to mind with regard to this aspect of worldbuilding. In one of my favorite books from last year, The Hands of the Emperor by Victoria Goddard, one character comments, laughing, “Cliopher was never one to bite the nose of the dragon.” He meant, Cliopher doesn’t like food that’s too spicy. But Goddard used a wonderful phrase to express this. I immediately wanted to steal it. Another series with exceptional use of slang is the Jade Sea trilogy by L Shelby. “I’m overjoyed. Gleeful. Brighter than a bean in a bucket.” This is an aspect of worldbuilding that always catches my eye. Some authors probably have a knack for it. I don’t, particularly — but it’s something I pay attention to and work to get right, because there’s not much that makes a secondary world feel more real.