Friday, April 7, 2023

Worldbuilding 101 for Writers: Writing Language and Communication

by A.C. Williams @ACW_author

Have you ever just sat in a cafe or restaurant in another country to simply listen? That’s one of my favorite pastimes on international trips. I love to grab a cup of coffee and find a seat in a pub or a coffeeshop and watch people and listen to how they speak and what they say and how they say it. Because, let’s face it, what we say and how we say it communicates a great deal about who we are as a culture (for better or for worse).

You don’t even have to be in a different country. You could do this in your own city. Regional cultures are a thing. Even the districts within a city can be unique in their own way (someday I’ll share about the passionate divide between East and West in my comparatively small city).

Vocabulary, pronunciation, attitude, and body language can express an extraordinary amount of information about a person and what culture shaped them. That’s why language and communication are such valuable tools for developing the storyworld in your novel.

So far in this Worldbuilding 101 series, we’ve talked about Existing History and People and Social Circles. Both of those concepts are essential building blocks of creating a storyworld. (links to previous posts can be found at the end of today's post) 

Today we’re going to go a bit deeper into the “People” category and talk about Language and Communication.

If you’ve read any of the PC CHILIDOG character development series, there’s a post about language and idiom that will connect with this concept in worldbuilding. For developing a character, language and idiom is part of who that character is; from the worldbuilding side, language and idiom explains WHY they are that way. Your storyworld should inform how your characters speak, move, and express themselves. 

Classic example? Oh, so many. Let’s go with Hercule Poirot. Agatha Christine was a master of understanding human nature, and her famous detective Hercule Poirot is one of the most iconic figures in literature (it’s the mustache). He’s Belgian. So if he doesn’t speak like someone from Belgium, there would be a problem. If he doesn’t behave in a way that is consistent with someone from Belgium, there would be a problem. He is from Belgium, so in order to convince a reader that this is truly the case, he must act like it. 

What about in Tolkien’s world? Elves speak Elvish. Dwarves speak Dwarvish. Men speak—what?—Numenorian? Unless they have a reason to speak everything (uh-hem, Aragorn), those languages generally stay within their individual cultures. 

I read an article some time ago about a shepherding culture in the mountains somewhere in Europe that communicates by whistling. The distances they have to communicate over are too vast for voices to travel, but whistles work.

I have a friend who spent a summer in Papua New Guinea and realized quickly that a rather large part of their language is non-verbal (like everyone’s language, frankly). But in PNG it’s very much in the face. You can apparently have an entire conversation with your eyebrows. 

From personal experience, I can tell you that in Guatemala if you compare someone to an animal, it’s a huge insult. So you can’t say “the kids are behaving like monkeys” or “that guy is strong as an ox” without terribly offending someone. It’s a cultural thing that dates back to the conquistadors. 

The language and word choice your characters use must be based on the culture where they originated or where they spent the majority of their time.

Does the culture you’re building favor large families and chaotic meal times? Maybe there should be hand signals for when to pass the salt at dinner. 

Does the culture you’re designing only hear certain frequencies of sound? Maybe they need to communicate using colors instead. 

Is the world you’re building underwater? That will wreak havoc with spoken communication just in general.

Part of constructing a believable storyworld is making sure that your cultures and characters remain consistent in how they speak to each other. 

So if you’ve already got a character who communicates in a specific way, that’s great. Build your world and its forms of communication around what your character already does. Just be sure you can explain it. 

If you prefer to start from the ground up, begin with the world. Is it a desert planet that worships giant sandworms? Is it a water planet full of pirates and bounty hunters? Is it an old fashioned train full of passengers with murderous motives? How would people from those worlds communicate with each other? How would they communicate with people from another world?


Worldbuilding 101 for Writers: Language and Communication from author @ACW_Author on @EdieMelson (Click to  Tweet)

Don't Miss the Other Posts in this Series!

Award-winning author, A.C. Williams is a coffee-drinking, sushi-eating, story-telling nerd who loves cats, country living, and all things Japanese. She’d rather be barefoot, and if she isn’t, her socks won’t match. She has authored eight novels, two novellas, three devotional books, and more flash fiction than you can shake a stick at. A senior partner at the award-winning Uncommon Universes Press, she is passionate about stories and the authors who write them. Learn more about her book coaching and follow her adventures online at

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