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How to Make Your World More Convincing, or What I Learned from Patrick Rothfuss

In Language, Patrick Rothfuss, Written by Thomas on April 11, 2011 at 3:05 pm

I recently got hold of Name of the Wind by Patrick  Rothfuss (from here on referred to as “Patty”)*, and I’ve got to say, it’s a great book. It’s got living, breathing characters, a spellbinding plot, and a setting so believable you could pick up and move there if only you could figure out the zip code.

On top of being enjoyable, it’s also been an education. It feels like every chapter five pages he does something else that makes his world just a little more three dimensional. My copy weighs in at 662 pages; if you do the math, there are 132.4 lessons there for world builders like us. I think one of the most important is this:

Make up sayings and idioms.

Much of our linguistic currency isn’t original. We recycle common ways of expressing ourselves all the time.

And in response to my bold claim, “You think you’re a linguist,” you say. “Prove it.”

Fine. I will. But that’ll have to wait for another post. For the moment, you’ll just have to trust me.

Let’s narrow down our field here. This is what I mean by “sayings” and “idioms:”

Sayings are pearls of wisdom, or sometimes nonsense, packaged in neat little linguistic bundles. They’re phrases like, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” or, “Practice makes perfect,” and the ones you use can reveal a lot about your assumptions and attitude.

Idioms are a little different. Their meaning isn’t transparent from the words themselves. If you’ve ever been on to something, or put a cork in it, chances are you weren’t on top of anything and a cork was nowhere to be found. But we know what they mean nonetheless. And using them gives your speech a sort of uniqueness that’d be absent otherwise.

Now think about it a minute. If your world is full of actual people and it’s not identical to the real world, there will be linguistic differences. Of course, you can ignore them or decide they’re not there, but if you do, you’re giving up a huge resource. Specifically, you’ll miss out on three things:

First, if you construct them well, when your characters use in-world sayings and idioms, it’ll be just a little bit alien, highlighting the fact that highlighting the novelty of your setting. Early in the book, the protagonist Kvothe says to his student, “You’ve been avoiding that book for a mortal age.” Immediately when I see mortal age, I’m reminded that this world is new and unfamiliar. I’m almost certain I know what it means, but the fact that I’ve never heard anyone put it that way makes it clear I’m somewhere else, without the need for good ol’ Patty to bludgeon me over the head with magic and monsters.

Second, using unoriginal language appropriate to their world makes the characters seem that much rounder. You see that they’re connected to their world in the same way that we’re connected to ours. The Chandrian, an ill-explained group of supernatural beings, are the antagonists of the book, but they’re also figures of myth. Appropriately enough, there are countless stories and songs about them. One that shows up several times in the story is this:

“When the hearthfire turns to blue,
What to do? What to do?
Run outside, run and hide

When his eyes are black as crow?
Where to go? Where to go?
Near and far. Here they are.

See a man without a face?
Move like ghosts from place to place.
What’s their plan? What’s their plan?
Chandrian. Chandrian.”

It’s made even more powerful when, after you’ve seen the song in full, the characters reference bits and pieces of it farther down the road. You get the impression that this is a real story which genuinely plays a part in how they think.

Finally, sayings are an especially powerful tool for informing the audience how your characters think and feel. Later on in the book, a master artificer tells Kvothe, “A moment in the mind is worth nine in the fire.” Think for a moment. What kind of person says that? Someone with foresight, who’s cautious and meticulous, who considers all their actions well ahead of time. And that is exactly how Master Kilvin is. With eleven words, Patty provides crucial insight into Kilvin’s personality and outlook.

So get cracking. I’ve found that taking actual sayings and reworking them to make sense in your world works quite well, and requires a good deal less wit and insight than making them out of whole cloth.

Of course, you can always approach it from the other direction too. Instead of trying to make up world appropriate sayings, try and devise a saying for a specific purpose: to reveal a character’s personality or provide a little bit of flavor. When you do, just make sure it has that ring to it that unoriginal language always does.

* Mr. Rothfuss, if you ever read this, I mean no disrespect. Merely a bit of good natured jollity from one wordsmith to another.

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