For a long time, my gods had Greek names. Some had servitors that were termed ‘angels’. Some of the villainous powers were referred to as ‘demons’. I used certain curse-words in the way they’re currently applied, and sometimes considered which of my characters would embody the Seven Sins or the Seven Virtues.
It took years to get away from that. I still haven’t entirely escaped.
I have to preface this now by saying there is no problem with doing any of those things, if they suit your story. However, almost since its inception, my world was to have nothing to do with Earth or our universe. (Yes, initially I flirted with the traditional ‘Earth-people populating an alien planet’ thing, but as I started designing my own cosmology, I dropped that.) I suppose it’s a tribute to the pervasiveness of Western theology that I didn’t even think of many of these points as problematic until fairly recently.
I’m sure most sci-fi and fantasy authors have had this problem at some point in their career. How do you disengage yourself from your parent philosophical system to create something culturally alien? It is of course impossible to do that entirely; someone could write a book in an alien language, using alien terms and describing things that don’t have any cognate on Earth and thus achieve relative veracity, but the mind that created it would still be human — still imbue it with some kind of human logic. Plus it would be incomprehensible to almost anyone else.
How to balance, then? Depends on how alien you want it to be. For a sci-fi story, you can push the boundaries to the limit of your readers’ comprehension (though probably you don’t want to go that far), but for fantasy you need to stay a bit more grounded. A bit more…human.
This is not to say that fantasy needs to be trite, cliche, formulaic. It certainly doesn’t all need to be medieval (though I am talking about high fantasy otherworld-type stories, not urban fantasy, which does its own thing). But since it’s all about magic and things that don’t actually exist, it needs more solid underpinnings in what we recognize as human nature, even if the people we see that expressed in aren’t human.
I’m sure this has all been said before, so I’ll go on to my personal trials in that regard. After all, you’re here on the WoMP blog where I babble about my imaginary world; you’ve let yourself in for it.
Greek names. I have a bit of Greek in my heritage, so I’ve always been interested in the mythology. My middle name, Anthe, which I’m using as part of my pen name, is itself Greek. For a long time, most of my gods were referred to by Greek names: Nemesis, Deimos, Somnus (Roman, not Greek, but close), Moros, Ate (yes, that’s a name) and others. I had a few gods from other languages — Lorelei, Brigid — and also derived the name of the world from Greek mythology, as initially it was called Halcyon.
Some of those haven’t strayed far. Of all of them, Nemesis is still the same — though she is no longer actually named that, but called that as a title so that talking about her won’t accidentally invoke her, since she’s nasty. Brigid became Brigydde, because everything is better with a ‘y’ in it (just ask my 13-year old self), but has remained a standard Triple Goddess along with her two cohorts and is pretty similar to her Celtic version. I might change that, and over time I’ve reverse derived her name into something from my Gheshvan language which might eventually replace her current appellation. She’s the one that most bothers me but I also don’t want to change her too much, because she’s a Big Thing.
But what it comes down to is not relying on Earth-based religious backgrounds for my deities and powers, which brings up the title of this post. I don’t mean a ‘world without sin’ as in people never do terrible things to each other; it’s more that there is no concept of sin, original or otherwise. Some things are crimes, some things are bad habits, some things are disapproved of in the varied Halion cultures, but nothing is called a ‘sin’.
And with the concept of sin and the presence of Abrahamic and Earthly religions has gone the presence of things called ‘angels’, ‘devils’ and ‘demons’.
Their terminology is difficult to shake. The world I’m building is primarily animist — everything has a spirit, and none are intrinsically good or evil. There is no single heaven or hell; the gods collect their own followers, the spirits of animals, plants, minerals and beast-folk return to their parent spirit, and the unclaimed souls either reincarnate or persist for a while in a netherworld — then reincarnate. Cosmic recycling.
But for a while I was calling the winged servitors of the Shadow God ‘shadow angels’ and one of the intrusive external forces a ‘demon’. They had nothing to do with our current concepts of those terms, just the vague sense of ‘deity minion’ and ‘evil bad thing’, yet by their presence could imply a cosmological structure different from what I wanted.
So I felt the need to step aside from that. I had to make up some terms — the shadow angels are now the eiyensuriel, even though the -iel still echoes their angelic genesis, and the ‘demons’ are now called Outsiders, abominations, stellar locusts. In my mind, I sometimes refer to my wraiths as ‘origami space angels’ because that explains them best in the fewest words, but they have nothing to do with that kind of concept of cosmology.
And it’s not just that level that has to be changed, but even people’s patterns of speech. Obviously if there is no concept of sin, no one can talk or think about it in that manner. Equally, if there is no heaven or hell, they can’t be referenced, nor can anyone be damned. Or ‘saved’ for that matter, in that use of the term. There is still a difference between a spirit and a soul, but it is more complicated than ‘a human has a soul and everything else has a spirit’, even if on another level it is just that simple. (A human has a soul because a human is a crossbreed between two different types of beast-folk, and thus its essence can not return to either of its parent Beast Spirits upon death. The hybrid essence, unattached to any spirit, either dissipates into the environment, is taken by a god, persists in the netherworld or is reincarnated relatively whole in a new human body.)
So instead of people damning things, they have to curse them. Can’t talk about hell? What else can they say? The Void maybe, or the Dark, as Dark and Light are what Halions usually use as evil/good cognates.
Except they aren’t. The Dark isn’t evil; the Light isn’t good. They’re two struggling forces, and while some factions on the world believe strongly that one or the other is in the right, most people accept both as necessary — not in the manner of ‘a necessary evil’ but more like a plant needing both sun and shade to thrive. Some people do use them as curse words but they don’t hold much weight except in their respective religious groups.
And what about other curse words? (Why is this so much about curse words?) I don’t really try to delve into social issues when I write, though some things obviously come up in characters’ backgrounds and in my general attempts to decide how some gods handle some things — for example, Cob (our protagonist) wrestles with his anger issues and guilt over his mother’s suicide throughout the series, and Brigydde and the rest of the Trifold bring up such topics as foster care and child-protective services. But one thing I did do consciously was try to avert the use of ‘fuck’ as a curse word.
It seems weird and troubling to me that we shout a sex term aggressively at each other all the time. Like sex and violence are so completely intertwined that you can’t have the passion without the aggression. I’m not trying to build a kinder, gentler world here but I decided I wanted to separate out the implications into different curses, because what else was I going to do for fun?
So there is still ‘fuck’, but it’s almost purely the sexual connotation and very little of the violent. For getting fucked over, i.e. conned or tricked, there is now ‘foxed’ — it’s almost a sound-alike but also brings in the tricky-fox and the we-all-hate-Corvishfolk aspect. For yelling at someone you don’t like, or swearing about how much trouble you’re in, there are all the uses of ‘pike’: pike you, go sit on a pike, pike me with a ballista, we’re all piking piked. All of this is based on the use of the weapon — basically a big spear — and is all about violence (okay, and an intimation of sex).
And then there’s ghresh’t.
I admit, ghresh’t is an Issue word. It’s from Gheshvan, my made-up ogre language (because that’s what I do with my time) and it translates directly as ‘possession of the defiler’. Connotatively, though, it’s the idea that the item (or person) that has been defiled was fundamentally changed by that action and now exists in a permanent state of victimization in parallel to its victimizer — that the act, on some level (mental, spiritual?), never ended.
So this describes a mentality and worldview as well as being an admission (or threat) of victimization — a way of saying someone has or will be permanently scarred by this experience. It’s the antithesis of ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, as it’s ‘what doesn’t kill you puts unrepairable cracks in you that continue to break you down as time goes by’.
Obviously, if you threaten someone with this word, they have a good reason to punch you in the mouth before you can put whatever plan you have into action.
All of which leaves ‘fuck’ in more the mock-threat, promise or request category, and– Why was I talking about swear words again?
Sometimes these topics get away from me.
Anyway, suffice to say that it’s taken some peeling-away of old concepts to get this far in my own cosmology, theology and linguistics. And honestly it’s been fun; it’s interesting to examine language and figure out what has to go away when you remove a large concept from the lexicon. Other things I’ve had to look out for are…I forget the term for it, but words that came from someone’s name, like quisling or Adam’s apple. My fantasy/romance-writer friend had some trouble with the latter. Concepts that don’t belong, names that shouldn’t come up, terms that pick on racial and cultural groups that don’t exist in the setting–like being ‘gypped’ comes from gypsies. Scientific and medical terminology they don’t have… And of course making up one’s own magical and mundane terminology where necessary to fill in those gaps.
Sometimes makes me wish I was writing urban fantasy so I wouldn’t have to think so hard about what my characters can say.
All that, and you still have to make sure that people can follow what you’re talking about. I’m writing a different world; my animals, plants and environment are all non-Earth. But I can only use so many made-up words before people start going blank-eyed while they read them, especially since there are no pictures to go with the words — in which case I might be able to strike a balance between calling something a ‘wolf’ yet having it look like a purple-and-orange-striped insanity tiger, or calling something a ‘mippit’ and having it look like a normal mouse. People can’t keep a whole lot of descriptions sorted in their heads, which is why things like cover pictures are important to character impressions.
What I’ve tried to do with animals and plants is kind of a mix of the two methods — strange name with familiar animal, familiar name with strange animal. When possible, I try to use a generic name for an animal type, like ‘raptor’ or ‘bird of prey’ instead of hawk or eagle, or if I do use hawk or eagle, to qualify them by combining them into a non-Earth type, for example a ringhawk (a hawklike bird of prey with pale bands on its claws that look vaguely like rings) or a quillwolf (a large northern wolf but not an apex predator, thus with hundreds of porcupine-like quills in its undercoat that it can raise when it feels threatened or about to be eaten by an ice drake).
There’s also playing up non-standard traits while keeping the standard name. Horses with antlers, or with lion-tails and carnivore teeth. Cats with thumbs. Or using uncommon or wild-animal terms for common or domestic animals, like calling something a hog or boar instead of a pig, a hare instead of a rabbit, to let people understand what it is but kind of psychologically distance it from the standard Earth version.
Also just making critters up, name and all, like the gartos (tall, prehistoric-looking wading birds and their dwarf versions which are a bit like turkeys, I guess) and the grigs (scaly, scruffy-winged crawling/climbing birds, the dominant vermin due to the lack of rats).
I suppose in the end it’s more of a throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks method. See how far you can change things before people start going ‘?????’ when you try to have them read your stuff. See how close you can cut to other things before people say ‘Oh, is this from so-and-so mythology?’ Some mythic resonance is good; I can see Beauty and the Beast going on in some places when I squint, and Zeus sowing his godly oats, and the Fates measuring their thread. Just not too much, or your story will stop being yours and turn into some sad shadowy retelling of a better tale.
I still go back and tweak things sometimes, because it’s hard to know what your work looks like from the outside — if you’ve been marinating in it too long, you have undoubtedly lost all perspective. I still worry about Brigydde and Nemesis and some other traces I’ve yet to thoroughly scrub from the text. But if my beta readers don’t mind, and I kinda think I need what the names imply…
Maybe they can stay for a while yet.
Anyway, that’s a rambling window onto a part of my process. Now, enough navel-gazing, Me. Back to work!