And a little about world building…
My writing friend Lily Hammer made an interesting point on Instagram the other day:
“I love world-building, and I love unique worlds that other authors create. I personally walk a fine line as a reader between how much world-building I can handle. If an author introduces a ton of strange concepts, I can’t relate to or I can’t see clearly in my mind, I immediately disconnect from the book… For example, when authors create their own curse words, or use a normal English word as a curse word in their world. That immediately takes me out of the story.”
This made me think about how I present my Void-side/Void-Born citizens of Dark Home.
Language and People of Dark Home
Since the 1800s, Earth-side humans from the hyper zealous religious hunting organization Sanctum have tried to “colonize” Dark Home. I use the word colonize loosely because they have been, in the last 300 years—give or take—very unsuccessful. It’s hard to expand when monsters eat your troops. And in the 1970s, Hyperion’s Fury began sending hunters into the Void as well.
Because of this Earth-side presence, many of the Void-Born picked up English from the HADES hunters and Latin from the Sanctum hunters. But they have their own language and their own alphabet. In the early drafts of Book One I was taking the soft fantasy route and using just the backstory of the two Earth-side forces to excuse the fact that the Void-Born humans of Dark Home speak perfect English.
Well, that isn’t good storytelling, is it?
Where things are now
Fast forward a few drafts and I have pieces of the alphabet and some of what I call the English translation of Dark Home words for decorating magical items and fleshing out the magic system.
I don’t have the linguistic expertise or the imagination of Tolkin.
I don’t want to copy another language structure, tweak a few things, and call it my own.
I don’t want to disrespect other cultures by appropriating something I have little or no knowledge of.
So what will you find when you read my books?
Two groups of people who speak different languages. There will be translation errors and miscommunications. There will be all kinds of technical issues that will give the plot flavor.
As a child, I lived in Panama on and off for a few years. My Spanish was passable, but I did not have strong communication skills. I struggled through school and though a lot of my classmates helped me; I got to experience firsthand how a non-native speaker has to adapt to a different culture.
Now, years later, I get to use some of these experiences as inspiration for my writing.
So what does all this have to do with vulgarity?
My books have mature language in them. I enjoy using mature language. My characters enjoy venting their frustrations with expletives.
I do not use slurs… unless I introduce a fictional all female pagan punk band called Burning Bitch. Because they are the shit. And it’s an example of reclamation. (They have since been taken out of my current draft because they were taking up words and not moving the plot along. You can read the deleted scene here.)
And Void-Born characters have a unique set of profanities than the Earth-side people.
So, when coming up with swear words for my fantasy population, I wanted to use the element of realism and come up with words that they would naturally use as curses or view as insulting based on their historical and cultural experiences.
The Void-Born humans of Dark Home are very into their gods. Gods being Void Creatures. Dark Home is itself a god, the principle god of the Cloud City. The citizens of the Fire City worship another Void Creature, so much so they procreated with it and filled the city with its human-hybrid Mage descendants.
So they center their profanity on what will make their enemies angry, curses directed toward other peoples’ gods.
There is a bit of crossover. Void-Born humans don’t use Earth-side swear words, but a few of my Earth-side characters use Void-side swear words. The most notable is Theodore Thane because he spends most of his time in the Void, interacting with the Void-Born. He prefers the Void-Born over Earth-side humans, so he subconsciously picked up a few of their mannerisms.
The problem with language like this is semiotics (the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation). You might read the word and interpret the context of its use one way, and another reader can make a completely different and sometimes opposite interpretation.
For me, there is a big difference in quality when an author takes the time and care to make up their own swear words that make sense with their fictional population. I do not particularly care for stories whose authors use their fictional language as an excuse to mince oaths instead of dropping the f-bomb like any sensible person would. Like, if it makes little sense contextually, and the author wants to be profane without using vulgar words, I feel sad for the missed opportunity there.
Regina gathered her catalog of swear words from adults she listened to as a child. People she was imprisoned with at the HADES black site, for example.
I struggled a little with whether I wanted her to use religious profanities because she’s not a religious person, but she heard words like dammit enough times that saying them became a habit. And also, as a young child, nothing would have pissed Regina’s mother off more than hearing her daughter say “damn.” So Regina’s most frequent swear word is turning out to be “damn,” where other characters might choose more intense vocabulary. It works with her personality.