I’ll just say it straight off: it’s hard to write anything about world building because there’s so much to it, and all the different aspects of world building are linked together such that before you know it, you’re not just writing anything about world building, you’re writing everything.
I don’t have space for everything here, but I’ll try my very best to talk about just one ridiculously narrow piece of world building: the language of the people who live in an invented world.
Language Reflects its Environment
Easily the single biggest problem I see with world building in my clients’ novels is characters whose characters live in places that are different from modern-day America (sometimes radically so), but whose English is indistinguishable from that spoken here, today.
Let’s take as a given that if we fully imagine such characters and their world, they wouldn’t speak our kind of English. Of course not. Why would they? They’d speak their own language, with its own history and roots, sharing nothing in common with English.
Yet for the sake of practicality, we writers don’t typically make up whole new languages to satisfy the world building (though you are certainly free to go full-on Tolkien if you want). Nor do we ask readers to learn a new language just to read a novel. We recognize that doing so would be crazy—for all concerned—and employ the conceit that the characters’ language is translated, to varying degrees, into English for the reader’s convenience.
This is normal and natural and serves everybody’s needs. Where it goes wrong is when the writer forgets that there are degrees of translation, and ends up over translating the characters’ hypothetical language into modern vernacular. To use an extreme example just to make the point, imagine if Tolkien were writing Lord of the Rings today. He’s on the scene where Gandalf and Saruman are arguing about what to do with the One Ring, and Saruman is busy explaining how Gandalf ought to give up the goods so he, Saruman can use it. Now imagine our 2013 version of Tolkien penning the following words as Gandalf’s response: “Yo, homeboy, you be illin’ wit’ ‘dat idea.”
I didn’t think so.
There are degrees of translation. There are infinite shadings of English, in syntax, grammar, and vocabulary, which carry with them the feeling of other times, other places, and other cultures. But when characters from a supposedly-other place speak a version of English that is too much of our place, readers lose that feeling of otherness. The characters stop seeming like they belong to the world of your story.
Real languages change and drift. They take on new words with the day’s fancies and drop old ones that have gone out of vogue. Slang forms become accepted as standard if you wait long enough. Even the very sounds of a language morph over time (which is a big part of why English spelling is so hard). These changes can happen with stunning rapidity: the slang your parents spoke when they were kids was different than yours, which is different from that which your own kids speak today.
Cumulatively, it doesn’t take very many generations for these effects to turn what was one language into something that is functionally a whole new thing. Yet in manuscripts, I’ll see writers mess this up in one of two ways.
The first way is pretty simple: the language not evolving at all. This can happen in multi-generational epics, in which the story takes place over some long period of time but somehow all the characters end up speaking alike anyway.
Second, by exactly parallel evolution. I remember a novel once in which a character who learned Dutch from his mother encountered a lost tribe people descended from 17th century Dutch explorers. And guess what, the character could communicate just perfectly with them. Despite the fact that modern Dutch is surely quite different from the Dutch of the 1600s. Despite fact that an isolated population of Dutchmen would now be speaking a new dialect, one that had followed its own evolutionary path reflecting the environment the lost tribe lived in over the intervening four centuries.
Language Building on the Cheap
Ok, so you get the point. Your modern American readers will notice—and disbelieve—characters who aren’t modern Americans but sound like they are. And I get the principle complaint in response: with everything else you have to track to write a good novel, now I want you to track this too?
Well, yes. I do. But I’ll give you some shortcuts to help you get going. Once concerns the past, and the other, unsurprisingly, the future.
As British novelist L.P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Luckily for you, the further back into the past you go, the more it all sounds the same. Forsooth! Which means that if your novel concerns the past, the further back into the past you go, the less you have to sweat the particular linguistic details of that era. Not that you should be lazy with the research or anything, but just that there definitely comes a point beyond which a vanishingly small fraction of readers will ever know the difference. If you’re writing something set within the last 40 or 50 years—times when lots of potential readers were themselves alive and will know for sure if you get it wrong—you better do your homework. Before that, you’re probably ok just to do your best to look for vocabulary and phrasings that are suitably not-modern, and ask your beta readers to flag anything that still feels wrong to them.
Futurists, in a certain sense, have it easy: no reader living today has any direct experience with how English will sound ten, fifty, or five hundred years hence. When you’re writing the future, you’re pretty safe to stick with modern English diction as-is, with two minor differences: skip the slang, and treat technology as so ubiquitous as to be not worth mentioning. For slang, we all have an innate experience with how rapidly it comes and goes.
When I was of a certain age (ahem), we used “bad” more or less like today’s “awesome.” That lasted for what, five years? Maybe seven? But nobody does it today. So stay away from using today’s slang in your future-set novel. It won’t feel right for such coinages to have survived that long. Ideally, make up new slang (warning: this is hard to do well, and easy to do very, very badly). Or just leave it out. Few people will notice a particular absenceof slang. For technology, the more people become accustomed to it the less they talk about it. If a friend invites you to a dinner party, you might say “yeah, I can come over that night.” But you’d never say “yeah, I can come over in my car that night.” We take cars for granted, and rarely talk about them in the course of day-to-day business. The same will be true for your characters regarding technology which may be new to us, but is old-hat to them. They just won’t mention that stuff most of the time. So if you put a lot of tech-speak into your characters mouths—thinking, perhaps, to make your novel sound all super-cool and futuristic—it’ll backfire. Oddly, the best way to get readers to believe in the technology is for your characters to ignore it.