Do we really need to build a world? Only if our story takes place somewhere other than Earth. But that world can be so Earth-like that it’s essentially Earth with another name. This is the easiest approach with the lowest amount of risk. Unfortunately, it’s also the least interesting. This is what’s referred to as an analogue: something that has a corresponding version on Earth.
For example, maybe we invent a small island country called Xenoi where ritual suicide is accepted, honor is cherished over life, expert swordsman use special swords, women are subservient, everyone has black hair, fish and rice are diet staples, and there’s an emperor. How far did you get through that before you realized Xenoi is Japan? Which elements would you remove so that it’s not so obvious?
We should make changes to our analogues so they aren’t easily recognized.
The Rule of Three
When using an analogue, strive to change the source in at least three significant ways. Focus on the most prominent aspects and alter some, or make a longer list and decide what matters to keep and what doesn’t. If you have no specific use for a trait that really identifies the analogue, remove it.
For example, an elf lives in the forest, has pointed ears, and disrespects humans. Do we need the pointed ears? Are they serving a purpose we can’t live without? Why not ditch the negative attitude? Leaving them in forests might be good, but maybe they should be more wide ranging. This exercise can be done to everything else in this book series. Follow the rule of three and fewer people will recognize your analogues.
What’s In a Name?
More than you think.
Let’s say I invent a world that features a horse with an extra pair of legs. Next I incorporate a poisonous yellow tomato as well as a lion of superior intelligence. Then I call these objects horse, tomato, and lion. Would you remember the differences or picture the traditional versions?
There’s a kind of mental inertia to a known term; it suggests familiarity, which in turn overwrites our memory of a different detail in the book we’re reading. For example, if a horse is described as having six legs the first time it’s mentioned, but that detail never arises over the next hundred times the creature appears, readers will completely forget it has two more legs.
This issue is less true in a visual medium—we’re reminded of the difference every time the creature appears—but in books, we’ll have to keep reminding people, which feels like unnecessary exposition and housekeeping (for us and the audience). If we have to keep calling it a “six-legged horse,” that encumbrance isn’t much better. If we don’t call it a horse, but describe it in such a way that people think, “Oh, it’s just a horse with two more legs,” is that an improvement? More importantly, unless the alteration matters in some way, why do it at all? It does make the world more alien, which is a fine goal.
Another issue we can face is inappropriately using a known term. There are expectations about what a word means, and while we have some creative license to make things our own and put a new spin on something, there’s a limit to how much liberty we can take before we cause a negative reaction. An obvious example would be calling a seven-foot-tall humanoid a dwarf (unless all other humanoids are considerably taller than that). In a visual medium, we must be especially careful not to be too obvious with an analogue. I recently saw a movie where characters spoke of goblins. I formed an expectation of what I’d see. Imagine my surprise when the goblin turned out to look like a gorilla with horns and a love of gold. It even moved and behaved like a gorilla. My expectations were defied in a way that jarred me right out of the story.
These factors should be considered when deciding if we should use a different name. A new word also carries some risk. Authors may need to present a longer description to their audience. What we’re describing needs to be firmly imprinted on the reader’s mind so that little more than the term is needed later. We might use the occasional mention of a characteristic, preferably during action involving that feature so it doesn’t seem like a reminder.
World builders can decide based on how many changes we’ve made to the analogue. The more changes we’ve made, the more our creation warrants a new name. How to create names is covered in Cultures and Beyond (The Art of World Building, #3).