Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She's currently writing a post-apocalyptic book with all of you called THIRST in conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series.
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Borrowing Languages and Cultures for Your Book
I am often asked for tips on how to come up with unique cultures for fantasy novels. A couple years ago, we had a fabulous guest post called Creating the Culture of Your Story. While I found that post fascinating, that's not the process I used in my Blood of Kings trilogy. I cheated, really. I looked to cultures and languages that exist or once existed on earth and I borrowed from them.
I used Hebrew for my "ancient language." When my bad guys spoke in the ancient tongue to power their dark magic, I simply looked up each word and used the direct translations, knowing full well it was likely the wrong version of the word. And when my good guys spoke in the ancient language, I got a translator to make sure my Hebrew made sense. In the series, I had one of my great knights, Sir Gavin, accuse the bad guys of perverting the old language. That worked well for my story, especially since Hebrew is a rather obscure language these days. This process wouldn't have worked the same for a language like French, since many of the translations are familiar to English words.
You can use this process to borrow from other languages. There are thousands of languages to choose from, though some will be far more difficult to find anyone who could translate for you. Always be careful to know the translation of each word used to make sure that you haven't chosen something vulgar or offensive. Whether or not you have a translator depends, I think, on how obscure the language you choose might be. If you choose something common like Spanish, many of your readers might speak Spanish and they would know your language is a mess even if you didn't. A language like Hopi, however, is so rare these days, it would be safe to borrow from for inspiration. (I used variations of Hopi in my new book King's Blood for one of my native tribes.) You can also research dead languages, then find an old dictionary of them from the library and use that to help you. Here is a link to a list of dead languages: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extinct_language
My "cultures" in By Darkness Hid started from lists of character names for each region. I’d been using Hebrew for so many and wanted some variety, so I came up with some tricks. Allowntown, for example, is an orchard town. So I wrote a list of types of apples: Gala, Pippin, Cortland, Concord, Crab, Ginger, Fuji, etc. When I needed a new character from Allowntown, I’d pick a name from the list. Each town had a theme. Carmine was a vineyard town, so I brainstormed a list of things having to do with wine: Rioja, Flint, Terra, Keuper, Pinot, Concord, Malbec, etc. For Berland I used Inupiat names. For Magos I used Gaelic names. For Cherem, I used names of stars. For Nesos, I used Hawaiian names. And those themes became a vague culture for each place. And really, my story didn't require deep cultures for every location. I just needed to create the illusion that each place had a deep culture.
I once read a fantasy novel in which the hero came to a desert land. There he met a people group with Middle Eastern-sounding names. They wore turbans and fought with cutlasses. I found it corny because the author had pretty much stolen several Middle Eastern stereotypes for his fantasy culture and it just wasn't unique enough to pass by my notice. It took me out of the story again and again. I caution you against doing that. Don't steal too many attribute from a single culture and call it something different in your book. The same is true of fantasy creatures. If it looks like a horse, acts like a horse, eats like a horse, sounds like a horse, call it a horse, not a gorse. Save your unique creature names for unique creatures and call a horse a horse. And with cultures, look for inspiration that works for your storyworld and the plot, then make it different and unique.
For example, you might find the way China controls its population intriguing for a people group in your book. Great. Use that. But don't have too many other similarities to Chinese culture. Also, try and create a backstory for the population control that is different than China's reasoning. This will take that intriguing concept of population control and change it to fit your storyworld. Here is another example: You might take some dance culture from a Native American tribe, a religion from India, and the dress and climate from Finland and create a culture. Don't just do it randomly, though. Be intentional. Choose each attribute for a reason. If that area of your map is cold, ask yourself what cultures on earth are cold and what elements of those cultures fit well with your story and plot? It's the difference between stealing something and being inspired by it. Don't steal. Be inspired!
How do you create cultures for your books? Have you ever borrowed from real cultures? If so, how did you make your culture unique? Share in the comments.