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March 17, 2009


One of the people I correspond with is an aspiring writer and she asked me about language in sci-fi romances. She was having problems with words to describe things in her sci-fi work that didn’t sound plain stupid. She wanted to know how I attack this aspect of world building to give my work a sci-fi flavor and particularly mentioned my Talking Dog series, which is one of her favorites. I thought this was a great question and decided it would make an excellent topic for a blog post.

From childhood, I’ve watched sci-fi movies and television. I’ve seen how the writers have handled the language aspect and absorbed that. While I’ve never been a huge sci-fi/fantasy reader, I’ve read enough to see how other writers work this aspect of world building. I think the most important thing is to make sure the reader isn’t jerked out of your story because they’re so busy laughing about your made-up language or are totally confused because they don’t understand what is happening in the story. On the other hand, the writer shouldn’t copy everything they’ve seen or read in other sci-fi books or movies. Originality is good.

With my Talking Dogs series, I went light on the “foreign” language aspect. My stories are about aliens crash landing in New Zealand. Just as an aside, a lot of the time my editor and readers think I’m writing a foreign language anyway!

Hinekiri, the aunt, is a seasoned traveler/explorer. She’s good with languages and doesn’t stand out as a tourist. Janaya, the niece who stowed away to save her aunt, had a crash course with some Earth-speak tapes and she sometimes mixes up things when it comes to language. Here’s an example.

“Back on the ship,” she snapped to her aunt as she pulled her weapon free. “Now.”

To her right, the leaves of a fern shuddered. Janaya scented the air. Sweat. Torgon sweat.

“Come on out with your fingers poked inside your ears,” she ordered, aiming her neutralizing weapon at the dark green bushes that had moved.

“That would be, hands in the air,” her aunt said.

With my Talking Dogs, I focused more on the language difficulties, the same ones that people learning English have. With my stories this made sense because my aliens want to blend rather than stand out.

I gave the race of bad aliens (who are a pretty lilac color) the name of Torgons, the planet where Hinekiri and Janaya come from is called Dalcon, and I had a few other things with made up names. As I said, with this book I erred on the light side because it is set in New Zealand and I wanted my aliens to blend.

Foreign languages and scientific names for plants or animals can be a good source of language for sci-fi works. Authors can also use part of these words because some of them are really long while a few of the syllables work out perfectly as a made up language.

With my free story, Interplanetary Love, I used a completely different technique. I took normal English words and spelled them backward, making a new language all of my own. With Fallen Idol, I made up words, plucking them from the depths of my brain and that worked out okay.

With all my writing, I tend to err on the light side when it comes to a “foreign” language. I’ve read books where I’ve had to read the same paragraph several times to work out what the author or the characters were trying to say. I think this part of world building is a delicate balance because if you have too many strange words you frustrate your readers and if you don’t have enough you might as well write a contemporary. If anything, I’m probably on the too light side, but I can live with that. I write what I prefer to read.

Writers, what do you think? How do you tackle this part of world building when you’re writing a paranormal, sci-fi or fantasy story?

Readers, what do you think? Do writers get it right or do we confuse you? Is there a writer who you think does a really good job?


  1. Eleni Konstantine

    I love world-building and I love making up new names for people and places. But so it can be understood, I give a word that can be interpreted in context. I always think of Star Trek where they throw references – you are as snarky as a blah blah blah. And you know the blah blah blah is snarky, even though you don’t know what that is. I love glossaries in front of books like JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series.

  2. Voronda

    I agree with Eleni a writer that provides a glossarie in every book is invaluable. I love Ward,Dane, Franklin, Leigh,Feehan and others that actually explain to you how things work in real time or there is an explanation of the word or the world is invaluable. If I am in 2028 what happened to earth as I know it? How does the new world fuction and what the heck is a nometer? If the book is confusioning I soon put it down

  3. Kaye Manro

    I totally agree with what you are saying, Shelley. I write a bit of sci fi too. So far, I’ve tended to go light on the foreign words, but do have a just little science type jargon, mostly to set the scenes and for effect. (What the heck is a particulate eradicator anyway? My hero answers that for the heroine in dialogue.) I always thought that overdoing unknown words and language (even typical science fiction type words) wouldn’t work unless explained or made clear in the context of the story. After all, we are trying to add flavor, not confuse the reader. And as a reader, I don’t like to be thrown out of the story by odd words/language. Just the right touch is best in my opinion. I’ve also seen this overuse of language and words in some historical fiction as well, and it pulls me right out of the story.

    Thanks for this great post. Now I’m off to read Interplanetary Love and Fallen Idol Can’t believe I missed those!

  4. Amy Gallow

    I foreignize names by spelling them differently–Dale becomes Dael, Cameron becomes Kamran, etc., whilst technical jargon is established contextually or is self explanatory.
    World building on the other hand fascinates me, allowing me to play the game of “What if?” with enough technical understanding to make my guesses feasible.
    I enjoy it, and hope my readers do too.

  5. Nancy Henderson

    I love reading about new worlds, different sets of rules for that world. World building in writing is always terrifying for me, but then somehow it always works out. I’m still not sure how that is yet. LOL

  6. Christina Phillips

    I tend to aim on the lighter side if i need to mention technical jargon, and also use names that are easy to pronouce – I find if I’m reading and characters have very strangely spelt names, I trip over them and it can jerk me from the story. I’m also lucky with my CPs as if something doesn’t make sense or is incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t live inside my brain, they are very quick to point it out to me!!

  7. Shelley Munro

    Eleni – I think JR Ward does it well. It’s fairly easy to understand the language she uses. I personally don’t like glossaries, although a lot of readers find them useful. I prefer to have things simplified and hate to stop to look something up.

    Voronda – there’s one writer I read who uses a lot of made-up words etc. Although I enjoy her books, it always takes me a good chapter to get into the story and gain my footing. A chapter is about my limit. If I’m not grounded by then, I give up and move onto the next book. :grin:

  8. Shelley Munro

    Kaye – incorporating explanations into dialogue is a good way of doing it, as long as the explanation is fairly simple that is.

    Amy – good idea. That gives a “foreign” type feel yet is easy for the reader to understand.

    Nancy – world building isn’t that terrifying. Every book includes world building to some extent, no matter if it is historical, sci-fi or contemporary.

  9. Shelley Munro

    Christina – that’s another good point about pronunciation. I hate not knowing how to pronounce a word or name. It really jerks me out of the story.

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