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A WAY WITH WORLDS: TECHNOLOGY AND TERMINOLOGYBy Steven Savage, creator of the Crossworld of Xai. Archives available at Seventh Sanctum
I have a hobby.
I make generators - programsthat generate characters, plots, items, etc. for writing,role-playing, and just general fun. It's fascinating to dosomething like analyze magic items in standard fantasy, abstract the words and ideas, and produce a program that slaps them together to produce something new. Anyone who's ever played Diablo or Demon's Winter knows what I'm talking about.
Recently I was designing a Technobabble generator - to make science-fictiony weapons, armor, and Random Important Gizmos That Break. This got me thinking - and when I think, I'm dangerous. OK, dangerous and occasionally boring, but you get the idea.
I began asking about technology and terminology in world building. A few ideas, experiences, and personal policies came together and I suddenly had a column.
Technology and terminology in original worlds. Be it computers or magic or what have you,the terms used for technology in our worlds is important to our continuity and our writing.
A RABBLE OF BABBLE: Let's face it - in many cases we and writers have to make things up. We have to guess and extrapolate about how things work in our worlds. That's why it's fiction. There's nothing wrong with sitting back and theorizing how people can travel faster than light or what the rules of magic may be on a fantasy world. It's part of the writing process.
I've already addressed creating technology in previous columns. What I haven't addressed yet is exactly how your characters refer to it.
In having characters refer to technology, you truly set the tone for your world and your characters - because references, words, are a vital part of culture and character's lives.
Unfortunately it's easy to fall into two traps when your characters refer to technology:
- Techobabble - When you've got Hisenberg Rail Cannons and Nomydium Alloy Quantum Stabilized Armor, you have technobabble. Referring to things constantly with a huge string of words - a common problem in science-fiction.
- Coldbabble - Referring to things in a very cold manner. Spells of "Second Level Healing and Organ Repair." Sure there's not a lot of complicated words being thrown around, but the characters basically toss out descriptions. More and more common in fantasy stories as they've been influenced by RPGs.
Now which of these are correct? Well correct is a slipper term in creativity, but my answer is - neither. Terminology isn't that simple, and thus neither is the terminology referring to it.
So let's take a look at things that affect terminology in the worlds you build.
CONTEXT: Terminology depends on context. On who is speaking. On who they are speaking too. On when they are speaking. For any complex technology, there are usually many ways to refer to it.
The pain in your leg probably has a very long latinized term your doctor uses. A car engine is properly an internal combustion engine - but who curses their "internal combustion engine" for not working. We refer to an explosive called TNT, but the name is derived from the chemical formula of the explosive.
In creating terminology and having your characters use it, keep in mind the situation characters are in.
IMMEDIATE SITUATION: There is a time and place for everything. There is a time to try and find a spare Hyperflux Balance Capacitor, and a time to "find that Capacitor . . . thing . . . now!" There is a time to give a formal speech on viral behaviors and a time to give someone "a shot."
In designing your world and it's terminology for technology, be aware of how immediate and sudden situations affect communication. When writing, be especially aware of this - otherwise your story may sound odd.
PERSON: Different people have different knowledge, interest, and ways to refer to technology. An engineer, a scientist, and a disgruntled user have many different ways to refer to a computer CPU. If you were writing such characters in a story, they would speak differently - maybe even to the point of confusing each other.
Know the different social roles, backgrounds, and personal inclinations that may affect terminology in your world. A wizard may refer to his spells by a complex old language, a scientist may insist on proper terminology for chemicals, an engineer may mix salty language with long strings of description.
A character may also handle context and immediate situations differently. Thus a scientist may well use long scientific terms constantly - much to the annoyance of others. Someone may use slang terms inappropriately, confusing people used to more formal references.
TIME: Terminology changes. Grab one of the handy slang dictionaries available at bookstores or online, and you may be amazed what words used to mean and what phrases vanished. "Hilary" used to be a man's name. The term "mook" has held several meanings in American culture over the past few decades.
People are also very efficient creatures. We don't want to refer to something as an ignited-explosive-driven-projectile - we want to call it a gun (Besides, who would want to work at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Ignited-Explosive-Driven-Projectiles?). We like to have concise words, and over time we'll create them as needed.
In creating terms in your stories, ask yourself how terms may have changed over time - or be preserved. A tradition-bound culture may use archaic references, a culture with a lot of immigration may adapt a rainbow of foreign words quickly.
A good question to ask yourself when looking over the technology of your world is to ask:
- How old is it - If technology has been around a long time, people probably have casual ways to refer to it. If its new, there may be very few terms - and those may be quite technical.
- How important is preserving the original name - If it's vital for some reason that a technology be referred to very specifically, words for it may not have changed or changed much. On the other hand if it doesn't matter, terms may change quickly - "Darn it Junior, in my day we called it the Flaming Sphere Spell, not the f-ball! What kind of wizard are you?"
- How easy was the original name to use - It's kind of hard to improve on simple terms like "wheel" no matter how much time has passed.
- What other factors build up over time - A variety of factors may affect language over time - influence of other languages, ignorance, reforms, etc. The longer something has been around, the more chance the terms for it may change from the original.
SUMMARY:Technology terminology isn't something simple or something to obscure. It's a vital part of your world and the writing you will do. Take time to get terms appropriate for your world and your stories. It's worth it.
Oh, and as for the Technobabble generator? It's here at my generator's page. I'm not sure if it was a good idea to invent something to make more technobabble, but it was thought provoking . . .
A Way with Worlds is hosted at:
The complete works are archived at the Way With Worlds archive. A German translation is in the works at Christian Spliess's Page