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Author Topic: Terminology issues
wetwilly
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My current WIP (the Stasi one that some of you have been so kind as to read for me) is currently in the process of a major overhaul, thanks in part to some of your feedback. The main character lives in East Berlin in the 80s, before the collapse of the Soviet Union and East Germany. One of the changes I have made is introducing a character from West Berlin. My MC often refers to him as "Western" in her conversation and thoughts. This is a totally period-appropriate term for the character, but I fear that many American readers will associate the term with gold rushes and cowboys and six-shooters. That is the terminology that a person in East Germany behind the wall would have used, but I think it has different associations in our culture. Hopefully it doesn't evoke a bunch of nonsensical "old west" images for the reader.

Also, magic features prominently in this story, and I've given the people of my semi-fictional society their own terminology to refer to it. Basically, I just thought "magic" and "wizards" and "casting spells" sounded corny in the context of this story, and replaced them with different terms. I hope the different, less familiar terminology I'm using isn't just throwing up an extra barrier to entry into my story.

Just thinking "out loud" here. Anyone else run into similar issues with any of their stories? I expect it's a common issue for writers of sci-fi and fantasy.

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extrinsic
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A label matters less than the portrait. Introduce the Western character's context and texture first, and readers will be able to follow afterward. Same with the magic labels.
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jerich100
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If you drew a picture of an apple on a piece of paper and then added a label pointing to it that said, "Apple", what would be the point of a label?

A good author doesn't use labels. The sentence, "Dorothy was sad," is awful because what should happen instead is the author describes how Dorothy looks and behaves and the reader thinks, "Dorothy is sad."

I'm preaching to myself more than to anyone else. Words like happy, sad, mad, angry, and so on, should be stricken from our vocabularies. It's MUCH harder to write without using those words.

When it comes to use of magic or any other topic, the same applies. Don't say, "Jack is a wizard." Instead, have him behave as one and the reader will get it.

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wetwilly
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I get your point from the author's perspective: show don't tell, and I mostly agree with it (although sometimes I think we take that principle too far and go through a big writerly song and dance when, really, we just need to get to the point that Dorothy is sad so we can move on with things, but I suppose that's another discussion).

But I'm not talking about my authorial voice, or what vocabulary it is effective for me to use when talking about the world in my story. I'm talking about the characters' vocabulary. The characters, at some point, need to talk about the magic that is a big part of their world. They need to be able to say, "Jack is a wizard." The words "magic," "wizards," "spells," etc. just didn't feel like the right vibe for my story, though, so I relabeled them.

My concern is that the different labels will just muddy the waters. I don't want people to read it and think, "what is he talking about here? Oh wait, that's just magic. Why didn't he just call it magic?"

I guess it's kind of like how every cyberpunk author ever (myself included; I've got a cyberpunk novel in the works) feels the need to rename virtual reality so it sounds like something new and original to their novel.

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jerich100
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I'm sorry, strike what I wrote. Yes, your characters may say whatever they want to say. Their alternate wording would be more interesting than if they said ordinary words like, “magic” and “spells”. After all, the quaint phrase, "May the force be with you," is basically about magic, but it will be canonized forever.

I would think if you created a new world with a new vocabulary that would be super.

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extrinsic
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The principle is actually show and tell, not either/or. When to show and when to tell is knowing what their functions are or more so what a writer establishes as self-imposed guidelines for their uses.

Once a label's context and texture has been introduced, further development may proceed with less detail interleaved, to the point using the label alone is shorthand for all the prior development. Once and done development is dull.

Another principle on point is a Turkey City Lexicon item, also see related "Brand-Name Fever" (label): Note that common fantasy motifs are also applicable in the below as real-world motifs.

"'Call a Rabbit a Smeerp'

"A cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior. 'Smeerps' are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses. (Attributed to James Blish.)"

Turkey City Lexicon

Turkey City Lexicon enumerates many common writing shortcomings, not just ones common to fantastical fiction either.

[ March 03, 2014, 03:01 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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At one time, "Western" may have made people think of cowboys and such, but I don't think that's entirely the case any more.

Given the context of your story, I can understand it referring to someone who lives beyond the Iron Curtain.

The word can also be used by an Islamic militant to refer to the Great Shaitan (the US).

So I wouldn't worry about it. Cowboys and Indians don't play as big a part in the popular culture as they once did.

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Robert Nowall
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For purposes of illustration, we'll take the West Coast of North America as the "extreme westernmost point."

People in the Eastern United States think of those Out West as wild cowboys. People in England (Britain, the United Kingdom) think of those in America as wild cowboys. During the Cold War, propaganda outfits in the Eastern Bloc constantly portrayed those in the Western Bloc as wild cowboys.

So if a story set in and containing characters from an Eastern Bloc nation before the end of the Cold War uses "Western" in a "wild cowboy" sense, it's appropriate and a reader thinking the same way is an authentic and appropriate reaction.

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