Why language matters…
Obviously language choice matters in a book since they’re literally built of words. And while the language used in a story’s prose is important, there are other language choices that are just as important.
If prose choices reflect what’s important to the author, then slang and dialogue choices should reflect what matters to the characters. It’s a small distinction but a very important one.
Like Goldilocks, writing slang and specific language into your story can usually go one of three ways:
- Too much slang (that then makes everything overly complex or hard to follow).
- Mismatched slang (that takes readers out of the story or feels too modern or too forced).
- Just the right amount of slang (that immerses readers without jarring them).
It can be pretty easy to fall into the traps of 1 and 2.
Some authors love world building to the point where they come up with new words for literally everything. New curse words, new vocabulary, weird place names—I’m sure you’ve read a book like this. Sometimes this can work if a story is very high fantasy or hard sci-fi, but even then sometimes words can be overdone. (Note: authors of color writing complex worlds based on a real world language do not fall into this category. Just because words seem foreign to a Western-centric audience, does not make them overdone!)
Other writers are light on world building, which isn’t always a bad thing. But if you’re writing a sword and sorcery fantasy book and your characters sound like they’re friends with Cher from the movie, Clueless, it might seem really out of place and take your reader out of the world.
How can you find that perfect balance?
First, start with your book’s tone. Is it serious? Tongue in cheek? The slang and vocabulary should match that. If your sword and sorcery story is supposed to be wizards meets valley girls, then 90’s Clueless vocabulary could actually work and add to the overall atmosphere you’re trying to build. Always match the tone. There were a few lines that I had in Wolves that were funny to me, the author—but during revisions, I realized they felt out of place in the world I was building, so they got cut.
Second, think about the words your characters would use or need to use in everyday speech. I usually make lists of common world building elements and then go from there. In Wolves and Storm, I made lists of related words for each group that was important to the story:
- Commandos (aka this world’s version of the military, so words like ‘guns’ or ‘troops’, etc)
- Syndicates (aka the gangsters, so words like ‘bars’ or ‘henchmen’)
- Corpo elites (the wealthier class, the ones with ‘spaceships’ and ‘money’)
- Scavvers (the outsiders who try to live free of corporate influence)
The genetically-engineered wolves (even though the wolves don’t talk, they are talked about, so they got a list too, mostly words around sledding.)
Once I have these lists, I start brainstorming what the people in those worlds would call those things based on their history and development. For example: the gangsters in Wolves could call their bars “clubs”…but what if the word was more aligned with the underground setting of those bars? 🤔 And that’s how I landed on “dens” for the syndicate clubs.
This method can feel complicated or even overwhelming, and if a word gives me too much trouble, I usually just take it off the slang list and call it what it is, because if I’m confused, readers will be too.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t build slang around a complicated word. For example, I didn’t try to come up with another way to say “genetically engineered.” That phrase is already descriptive and sci-fi sounding enough.
However, in everyday speech, Remy and Sena refer to the genetic scientists and doctors as “gene hacks.” I wanted to show that the average person, like Sena, would view these doctors in a more negative way. I did this because in this story, the elites would be the ones using genetic engineering to their advantage, while everyone else would struggle to afford it. Hence, the average person would refer to the doctors with a word that expressed that particular feeling of negativity. (This word worked from Remy too, since she was made by those types of doctors and definitely has negative feelings towards them. 😅)
I often discard words as I work, so sometimes my early lists or even early story drafts can change as I write and develop the world. Sometimes, I even discover slang or words while writing. They’ll just pop onto the page naturally through the characters. All in all, slang is something to that shouldn’t just be shrugged off, left to chance, or over-thesaurused. It’s an important world building element that helps readers better understand your characters.
A version of this post appeared in Wolves and Wonder, my monthly newsletter that includes no-nonsense writing advice along with book updates and sci-fi inspiration. Get it in your inbox; you'll love it.