This is an idiom.
This is an idiom.

I absolutely love a well-put together world. I love it when I can read a novel, or a series, and feel like the world that I’m reading continues on without me. As fantasy authors, we often want to focus on the big things in our background work. We want the races and the nations, the wars, the great political alliances and upheavals, the magic and the religions, and all of those things are important. If you look back through some of the posts I’ve written on background writing, you’ll notices that I’ve covered these. However, it’s easy to get obsessed with the big things. Tolkien had a bunch of races, so we need a bunch of races. Tolkien made up his own languages, so we need to make up own languages. Sanderson has complicated and original magic, so we need complicated and original magic. However, while these things are all good, they don’t make for a complete world. Even when you get all of these its like a vanilla cake with no icing, veggies with no hummus, or an ice cream sundae with no whip cream or cherry. It is what it is, but it’s not what it could be. It’s not complete. This is where the little things come in. I find many, many authors that forget the little things, or who don’t do them particularly well. I want to point out Steven Erikson and Ian Esselmont as two authors who have built a very complete, thorough world with all the big things, but also with all the little things.

So, what are the little things? The little things are all the bits and pieces of daily life that make a culture real. The little things are the known watch companies, the infamous banks, the cuss words, the cliches, and all the little idiosyncracies that make America different from Great Britain, Morocco, or Korea. Each culture in the world has its own set of in appropriate words, its own cliches, idioms, axioms, etc that distinguish it from other cultures. I often see new writers of speculative fiction using common phrases from their own culture, and honestly, even veterans make this mistake frequently. What I love about Erikson’s and Esselmont’s work is the nearly seamless blend between common cuss word, cliches, and idioms and those of their own creation, and the fact the the cuss words of their own creation hold actual, understandable meaning in their world.

If you aren’t entirely sure what these are: a cliche is a phrase that is so common as to be considered boring or trite such as ‘God will work it out’, an idiom is a phrase that means something very different from the words used in it such as ‘the last straw’ or ‘head in the clouds’, and an axiom is a claim that is commonly believed and so considered obviously true. I’m going to assume you all know what a cuss word is. These, along with aphorisms, adages, slogans, dictums, or maxims are all parts of the background of culture. They are often forgotten because they don’t stand out as important, and if you ask someone to try thinking of an example of a cliche, idiom, or adage, it’s harder than you’d think, but when the time is right, the phrase just flows out of your mouth. This is something that your world needs as a finishing touch

A common trick that is used by veteran writers is to slightly alter a common cultural word to make it seem new and exciting. For instance, ‘coffee’ might become ‘caf’ or ‘cav’ and the F-word might become ‘frell’ or ‘frack’. However, Erikson and Esselmont created an entire set of cuss words, cliches, and idiom based on the cultures of their world. For instance, one that I can remember off the top of my head is ‘Togg’s Teats’. On it’s face, and from the way it is used, it’s obvious that this is strong language. However, what isn’t obvious is why. As one of Erikson’s characters explains, ‘Togg’ is a male god, and male teats are rather useless. So, ‘Togg’s Teats’ came to mean something that was utterly useless, and it’s use as a general cuss word expanded from there. This kind of etymological foresight for a fictional world is impressive even in a singular instance. Erikson and Esselmont have numerous examples.

So, the question is left, what is the background of your world/culture? What do people shout when they stub a toe? What do trite saying to they toss out to a hurting friend when there just isn’t anything else to say? What worldly wisdom passes as common knowledge among the people? How do they greet each other? How do they say good bye? Like I said at the beginning, these are all things that you’re world can do without. There are plenty of good novels that don’t have incredible etymological depth, but they’re also all things that will make your world feel a little more real.

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3 thoughts on “Background Writing: The Little Things

  1. It goes well beyond words. Have you noticed that in novels in general nobody goes to the bathroom, they seldom eat, they go days and days walking though the jungle with no awareness of the need to carry provisions or complain of the lack. Nobody just gets a cold, breaks a leg on a root and has to be carried for a while, etc. Things seldom stink in novels. They frequently do in real life.

    Little touches, even tongue in cheek – another idiom – that demonstrates that at least the author knows he/she is straying from reality – can be handy. Unless of course you have arranged for a of your party to have perfect bodies and perfect balance in advance!

    1. Wayne, this is very true. Although some of these things can have a disruptive element. For instance, people rarely pee in novels because we rarely talk about peeing in real life. While it’s certainly a consideration of reality, its something that reader can generally assume happens, unless there’s a reason not to.
      That being said, working in minor comments here and there that acknowledge these things without making them a major issue can be quite effective. I can remember one line (in Erikson’s House of Chains, I think, but it might have been in one of Eddings books) in which a character complained that he hadn’t been able to poop for three days. While bodily functions weren’t necessarily a major point in the story, this definitely added to the overall character.

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