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Author Topic: We are not using the Z-Word  (Read 5921 times)

Offline Yora

We are not using the Z-Word
« on: March 15, 2015, 01:29:45 PM »
A while ago I was reading a post about writers of fantasy worlds having to define how they are using the terms Good and Evil. (It was in the context of roleplaying games, but since their worldbuilding tends to be a lot more extensive than for most novels and they also have the audience/players adding their own characters to the world, so these people tend to spend a lot more thought on things that literature writers often don't think about.) And knowing a bit or two about Asian philosophy, I made the descision that there is no Evil in my stories. There is violence, brutality, exploitation, and crime, which is punished by law and almost universally despised, with the people who engage in them being hated and considered terrible. But there is no concept of Evil as in western thought. It's not a transgression against a unversal law or order, but simply something that people consider bad and unacceptable.
And that got me thinking 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::)

Do you have any words you consciously avoid to use in a story?

Offline Raptori

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Re: We are not using the Z-Word
« Reply #1 on: March 15, 2015, 01:37:14 PM »
Yeah I completely agree, and think your list is pretty good. It's something I've noticed a couple of times, with zombies in particular, and it's definitely helped make them feel more like a real part of the worlds (inferius in Harry Potter, hands in Old Kingdom).

We haven't got very far in ours, and this is the kind of thing that we'll decide as we go along. One thing that is already clear is that we won't use "wizard" or "witch". We might come up with our own terms, or we might use something like "sorcerer"... depends if we think of something that fits. I like the Priviledged, Marked, and Knacked terms in the Powder Mage trilogy which I'm reading right now, all three work perfectly.
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Offline JMack

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Re: We are not using the Z-Word
« Reply #2 on: March 15, 2015, 02:13:07 PM »
Yours are very interesting, and helpful for me to think about.

I have a particular challenge in my world, because there is no sun or moon. There are stars, some of which are bright enough in the day to fill the world with illumination. These stars fade, and night stars emerge with a colder, gentler light. I'm working out the mechanisms for tides, seasons, shadows, etc., but already it's quite challenging and fun to deal with all the issues that arise.

For example, we associate direction with the movement of the sun. Here, direction corresponds to certain stars with certain influences and behaviors. I end up having to choose whether east and west are based in which stars light first for day, or whether they're based on cold vs. warmth.  You can see how many RW words can't work, unless the reader is allowed to understand how they're adapted (but NO infodumps).

@Yora's ideas are very interesting. There is a philosophy underlying my world, but not all humanoids understand it equally. Therefore, one culture might curse and damn, while another won't. And yes, obscured references to Christ and anyone else have to be rejected.

I need to give this more thought.  What an interesting challenge.
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Offline Raptori

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Re: We are not using the Z-Word
« Reply #3 on: March 15, 2015, 03:05:27 PM »
Yours are very interesting, and helpful for me to think about.

I have a particular challenge in my world, because there is no sun or moon. There are stars, some of which are bright enough in the day to fill the world with illumination. These stars fade, and night stars emerge with a colder, gentler light. I'm working out the mechanisms for tides, seasons, shadows, etc., but already it's quite challenging and fun to deal with all the issues that arise.

For example, we associate direction with the movement of the sun. Here, direction corresponds to certain stars with certain influences and behaviors. I end up having to choose whether east and west are based in which stars light first for day, or whether they're based on cold vs. warmth.  You can see how many RW words can't work, unless the reader is allowed to understand how they're adapted (but NO infodumps).

@Yora's ideas are very interesting. There is a philosophy underlying my world, but not all humanoids understand it equally. Therefore, one culture might curse and damn, while another won't. And yes, obscured references to Christ and anyone else have to be rejected.

I need to give this more thought.  What an interesting challenge.
Re: directions (I might have mentioned this somewhere on here before), there's an interesting cultural quirk in real life on a pacific island (I forget which, might have been Tikopia), where their primary direction is "seaward". They live on such a small island, and they're all so familiar with every inch of it, that there is no real need for anything else. In one example, one islander told another that he had something on the seaward side of his face - they even use it instead of left and right. Lots of potential for interesting stuff there, though I suppose it could become very confusing to readers who aren't used to thinking in that way...
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Offline Justan Henner

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Re: We are not using the Z-Word
« Reply #4 on: March 15, 2015, 04:21:20 PM »
Yours are very interesting, and helpful for me to think about.

I have a particular challenge in my world, because there is no sun or moon. There are stars, some of which are bright enough in the day to fill the world with illumination. These stars fade, and night stars emerge with a colder, gentler light. I'm working out the mechanisms for tides, seasons, shadows, etc., but already it's quite challenging and fun to deal with all the issues that arise.

For example, we associate direction with the movement of the sun. Here, direction corresponds to certain stars with certain influences and behaviors. I end up having to choose whether east and west are based in which stars light first for day, or whether they're based on cold vs. warmth.  You can see how many RW words can't work, unless the reader is allowed to understand how they're adapted (but NO infodumps).

@Yora's ideas are very interesting. There is a philosophy underlying my world, but not all humanoids understand it equally. Therefore, one culture might curse and damn, while another won't. And yes, obscured references to Christ and anyone else have to be rejected.

I need to give this more thought.  What an interesting challenge.

Another thought, if your world has any kind of magnetism, the magnetic compass is as old as 200 BC. It'd be a viable alternative, but I like Raptori's idea. A lot more engaging and creative.
« Last Edit: March 15, 2015, 04:23:07 PM by Justan Henner »

Offline Elfy

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Re: We are not using the Z-Word
« Reply #5 on: March 16, 2015, 12:58:57 AM »
The z word is kind of interesting. I've seen a few terms. Mira Grant keeps referring to the ones in her current trilogy (Parasitology) as sleepers, for all that everyone knows they're zombies. They could also be called tapeworms (you'd need to read it). I'd prefer people to call the creatures what they are. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then the chances are that it's a duck.
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Offline Raptori

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Re: We are not using the Z-Word
« Reply #6 on: March 16, 2015, 05:40:42 AM »
The z word is kind of interesting. I've seen a few terms. Mira Grant keeps referring to the ones in her current trilogy (Parasitology) as sleepers, for all that everyone knows they're zombies. They could also be called tapeworms (you'd need to read it). I'd prefer people to call the creatures what they are. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then the chances are that it's a duck.
Myeah, but there are often fundamental differences between things in spite of the similarities. Is a "zombie" any reanimated corpse, or is it specifically one that is reanimated by an infectious virus which spreads through contact? I think one of the most significant aspects of the stereotypical zombie is that you need to avoid them like the plague if you don't want to become one yourself. Both the ones I mentioned - inferi and hands - are reanimated corpses that will try to kill you if ordered to, but they're not infectious. They're almost identical to the standard zombie, but I think that difference merits a different name.

Of course if whatever it is is identical to the norm then it's probably better to use the normal word  (as long as the word fits with your world). Another set of examples of that: wizard, witch, mage, mistborn, feruchemist, powder mage, priviledged, poet, witted, skilled, etc. In a sense they all mean "someone who can use magic", but the more specific words evoke a much clearer sense of what you're talking about.

I think it's good to create/use unusual words like that for things that are key to the world/story, and use the normal words for something that is just hanging around in the background.
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Offline Elfy

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Re: We are not using the Z-Word
« Reply #7 on: March 16, 2015, 06:04:47 AM »
The original zombie in Haitian folklore was a corpse reanimated by magic. The current usage depicting a mindless creature with a taste for brains was something George Romero started in the '60's, although in The Night of the Living Dead they're actually described as ghouls, which is an entirely different thing, he did however call them zombies in interviews and by the time Dawn of the Dead was made in 1978 they were recognised as zombies.

Offline Raptori

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Re: We are not using the Z-Word
« Reply #8 on: March 16, 2015, 07:14:02 AM »
The original zombie in Haitian folklore was a corpse reanimated by magic. The current usage depicting a mindless creature with a taste for brains was something George Romero started in the '60's, although in The Night of the Living Dead they're actually described as ghouls, which is an entirely different thing, he did however call them zombies in interviews and by the time Dawn of the Dead was made in 1978 they were recognised as zombies.
True, but when you say zombie to someone these days they'll inevitably picture the modern version. I think that what matters is what the readers in general will associate with the word, rather than its actual roots. Also I've always seen the Haitian version spelled "zombi" to differentiate as well, though I guess that's a really small difference  :P
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Offline Nora

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Re: We are not using the Z-Word
« Reply #9 on: March 16, 2015, 11:27:13 AM »
Not so sure about that. I think if your creature is a shade different from the mass media Zombie but too similar, you're better off calling them a zombie and immediately engaging in a description that will outline some of the differences (while more detail surely will flow with the story).
I think it is easier for the readers and not as grievous as incorrect swearing (I have sometimes fallen on Christian related swearing in pagan based books and it IS an eyesore). High fantasy often has too much going on with complicated names and new concepts.

The very chilling book World War Z is a good exemple of the Z-word as I see it. The creatures are zombie like but not a holliwood stereotype. They do not rise from the grave. They are infected living who become something else, with specific evolution as they age. The beauty of the book is that you know what it's going to be about but the new concept for those zombies is beautifully crafted and explained.
But it's true that it happens in our own world, so the word already existed.

However, how do you justify using the word "witches"? It comes from the old English "Wicca" the pagan religion. If the concept of Wicca isn't present in the work, the word becomes as tricky as 'zombie' no?

The whole debate on the Z-word reminded me of that episode of Honest Trailer :
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNxvo8AcpQQ&feature=youtube_gdata


In my own work, the setting is our own, dystopian future. So I am saved a lot of trouble. The only creatures coming up with problematic naming are Ghouls and vampires. However they both are actually unrelated to the modern calling :
The universe offers normal humans alongside a race of very scarce immortals. They're humanoid in shape and can interbreed with humans. However when they breed, you never obtain a super-human but a weaker and weaker immortal like creature. The more human blood percentage, the most vampire like the person is : needing to feed on blood often, over sensitive to light, with shortened life span ect.
Ghouls appear when a 'vampire' fancies trying to 'turn' a human in the literary tradition. It just fucks up and you obtain a ghoul. This is explained to the main character and the wording is joked about, the creatures are seen as the very reason for the existence of the vampire and ghoul myth.
In that aspect one can totally say I borrow from Anne Rice, who pushed it as far as having her vampires being the authors of some vampire novels.
« Last Edit: March 16, 2015, 12:14:02 PM by Nora »
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Offline Yora

Re: We are not using the Z-Word
« Reply #10 on: March 16, 2015, 12:09:14 PM »
However, how do you justify using the word "witches"? It comes from the old English "Wicca" the pagan religion. If the concept of Wicca isn't present in the work, the word becomes as tricky as 'zombie' no?
You just have to arbitrarily draw a line which words you consider to be specific or generic. That would depend a lot on what you consider to be the common preconceptions that come with the term and how much these support the specific creation you want to describe or how much they conflict with it.
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Offline CameronJohnston

Re: We are not using the Z-Word
« Reply #11 on: March 16, 2015, 12:23:04 PM »

However, how do you justify using the word "witches"? It comes from the old English "Wicca" the pagan religion. If the concept of Wicca isn't present in the work, the word becomes as tricky as 'zombie' no?


Witch is fine, as there was no historical 'Wicca' pagan religion (Wicca only being established last century) but instead is a generic term that refers to practitioners of a variety of sorcerous practices, divinations etc. (some of which were no doubt adherents of a variety of different pagan beliefs)

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Offline Elfy

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Re: We are not using the Z-Word
« Reply #12 on: March 18, 2015, 10:10:49 PM »


The very chilling book World War Z is a good exemple of the Z-word as I see it. The creatures are zombie like but not a holliwood stereotype. They do not rise from the grave. They are infected living who become something else, with specific evolution as they age. The beauty of the book is that you know what it's going to be about but the new concept for those zombies is beautifully crafted and explained.
But it's true that it happens in our own world, so the word already existed.


Mira Grant's Feed (actually the entire Newsflesh trilogy) is similar to that, although it takes place after the world has survived the zombocalypse and is getting back on it's feet, although there are plenty of them around. One thing I did like is that she invented a scarily plausible reason for the apocalypse. How the virus was made, how it got out there and proceeded to infect a large slice of the population, and how everyone combated it.
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Offline Yora

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Offline ArhiX

Re: We are not using the Z-Word
« Reply #14 on: September 04, 2015, 01:31:38 PM »
There is no reason to not call them differently. It's just another reference to "undead" group. In Dark Souls series almost every enemy can be reffered to as "undead" or "hollow". They have almost all of the specifications of "normal" zombie (sometimes passive, but usually very hostile)- yet we know they are not them. They have different origins etc. They could also be reffered to as "Branded" - thanks to the "Dark Sign".

I'm trying to avoid the M word which is (to no surprise) Magic. In my world everything that has soul is "magical". But souls are not "true" souls, but more like an engines that make (almost)everyone "tick" (so do I have to change it's name? naaaah...).

So when I first started to think about that, I wanted to completely eradicate "Magic" because - if everyone are special, no one is special (if everything is magic, then nothing is magic). But yet again. Can everyone in our world learn how to play an instrument and make music? Well yes. Then if so - why do we even have a term "musician" when everybody can be one?
And to go further - magnetism is a thing. But it's just another face of electromagnetism and so forth...
Yet we need a term "magnetism", even if it is so common. We need a way to call it in other way than just "energy".

And about "good and evil" concept. This one is tricky. Something can be hostile, without being "evil". But if I don;t understand why something is hostile - or even further - this thing has rather bad or no reasons to be hostile towards me - why can't I call it "evil".
If someone is "hostile" to me, for the sake of "hostility" and wants to (let's say) destroy the world, then it is "evil", because there is no better word to use.

To go further - in fantasy world there can be no horses, no dogs, no moths etc. But if there are animals very similiar to them, why do we have to complicate everything and call them "marsusus" "woofjaws" and "powderflies"(that one sounds nice). Similiary in my world I have no "birds". But I have winged  and feathered creatures I refer to as "birds" and creatures that only look like "birds" - so they are "bird-like".

Sometimes we have to forsake our ambitions for the sake of readability if they make very little difference and are not crucial for our worlds.

I know that my post is propably very chaotic - but you get my concept (or at least I hope so):
- Everything within reason.
« Last Edit: September 04, 2015, 01:40:22 PM by ArhiX »
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