A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the concept of Evil in my Ancient Lands setting. It got me thinking about how a story or series of stories can be given its own distinctive character by deciding what words and concepts don’t exist in their worlds. Even longer back, I also remember reading an article about a writer saying he doesn’t use the word “damn” in his story because in that world there is no damnation that could await people. And it does not make sense in a Legend of Zelda game when a character says “Gee, it sure is boring around here”, because “Gee” is Jesus. Selectively not using word is probably something that readers are very unlikely to actively notice unless they are specifically looking out for it. But I think a great number of readers will at least sense it unconscously. So I’ve been thinking some more on other words I don’t want to use in my writing.
Zombie: The original Z-word. In the world I am using there are the corpses of the dead which get animated by magic and wander around attacking the living. But these are not created by some kind of plague or being altered by a wizard, but are possessed by
evil hostile spirits. They can be mostly intact or nothing more than skeletons or anything in between. While not terribly smart or displaying any real motivations, they still think. They are still very much like zombies, but they are also quite different from the common movie-zombie. Also, a zombie is something the readers know and are familiar with, and within the world of the story the walking dead are so rare that almost no character will ever have encountered them. If I call them zombies, the readers will think the protagonist thinks of them as zombies and therefore assume these are not really anything to worry about for an experienced hero. If the protagonist is surprised and does not quite know what he’s dealing with, then the reader should feel the same and that just won’t happen if they are described as zombies.
Hell, hellish: Something can not look hellish, like Hell, or like from hell if there is no place called Hell and the people in the stories have no concept of such a place.
Ghost: Still not entirely certain about this, but I think I want to avoid using the word ghost. Those are those white glowing souls of the dead with unfinished business they have to complete before they can depart. In a world that is highly animistic, the default world for an incorporeal being would be “spirit”. In case the spirit is actually a dead person, I prefer the words Shade or Wraith. Like the zombies, it keeps readers a bit uncertain what exactly it is.
Soul: Like Evil, the word soul comes with a lot of preconcieved bagage. If the life energy of a person is not immortal and going to remain what it is in some form of afterlife, the term soul seems misleading to me.
Sin: Another word that really works only in a christian context. The best analogue in an animistic world would be taboo.
Wizard: I never use the term wizard. It always reminds me too much of scholars with libraries of arcane tomes and magic wands. Since that’s not in any way similar to what these people are in my stories, I always call them sorcerers or witches or something like that.
Fire!: This is admitedly pendantery. But arrows and catapults are not fired.
(And yes, I know. I need to find some other names for Ghost Paint and Soul Stones.)