For SF&F Writers: Building Believable Worlds Pt. 1, Language


A big part of any good speculative fiction story is building a believable world. A bit ironic, considering that the genres of science fiction and fantasy are built around the willing suspension of disbelief, but there it is. This isn’t to say that the setting for any given story can’t be magical, fantastic, or set in some far-distant future or alternate past, it just has to make sense. In my time as a First Reader for Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, I’ve narrowed down several key elements that I feel are necessary in order for a story to feel complete and immersive to the reader, which I’ll be covering here in installments. It’s not that a story will necessarily be rejected if it doesn’t adhere to any or all of these elements, it just helps to have a coherent, logical, and well developed world in order for characters to grow and the plot to progress.

Our first key element is language. What language do your characters speak? How do they speak it? How far removed from the everyday person of our own world are they? Is that reflected in how they talk to each other, in their names or their slang, in the names they give to their technology or mystic artifacts? Is your main character a robot, an alien, an elf or a goblin? Don’t just tell us so, show us both similarities and differences between this character and the ordinary humans (if any) around them by how they think and communicate.

Too often, I come across fantasy stories are populated by people speaking the author’s conception of ye olde English. The same problem takes different form in science fiction, where I read stories set either in apocalyptic futures or aboard spacecraft hundreds of years ahead of our own time and light years from earth that feature characters interacting with each other exactly like 20th/21st century Americans. At least the in the heroes case. The villains tend to come off as British.

Maybe this is just my own reading experience showing. Maybe it’s just who we are as authors and readers. If English is the language we speak, it stands to reason that it also has to be the language of the fiction we read and write. The only real failure here, the one that causes me to look at stories more critically, is when the author develops nothing on their own. Borrowing from established genre canon is acceptable, since as genre writers we follow in the footsteps of the creative people who came before us. But many stories don’t go beyond the already recognizable, or worse, feature races of aliens or fantasy creatures, or even humans of other societies, who’s language, idioms, and culture are barely hinted at and never really elaborated on. I don’t expect every author to go the way of Tolkien, or say, the Star Trek universe, and create entire languages from scratch for fictional races and peoples, but even a little of original, creative effort in this department goes a long way. Even if it’s just a few made up words or pieces of song and legend from fictional people X, the writer should have what they offer tell us something about them and their outlook on life. After all, why go to the trouble of creating your own universe just to populate it with the exact same sort of people we already have in this one?




  1. I agree completely. The use of contemporary language is especially noticeable when they use language spoken by teenagers or young adults, or slang used today. It breaks the flow of people interacting in a different milieu. It jars you back into our world.

    Another point about language used, is when characters use words that are inconsistent with the type of person they are. For example, common thugs are unlikely to use sophisticated English, so when they do, it spoils the picture the reader is building up of that character. And when each and every character speaks the same way, it makes it seem like there’s only one character (the author) speaking through two-dimensional characters.


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