Posted by: Phil Anderson | January 13, 2014

How Different is Too Different?

Creating a new world is not easy. A writer of high fantasy or science fiction has a difficult job in developing a setting that is foreign or alien enough to seem like a different place, but still familiar and relatable so that readers can understand and enjoy a story set there. Realistic, urban, and historical fiction have their challenges as well, but at least the foundation of the world has already been built.

One of the easiest ways to differentiate a fictional world from the real world is to use new words for familiar things. Despite the fact than many fictional aliens are somehow humanoid, they won’t generally be named Bob or Sally or Joe unless they’ve been given that name by visitors from earth. Fantasy worlds are also inhabited by people and creatures with unfamiliar names; one of my daughters joked about naming her son Frodo. (Another promised that if she did he could be the ring bearer at her wedding.)

Just making up funny names is not enough, however. A good fantasy world also needs unique cultures and traditions to set it apart. Gargoyles (from the eponymous animated series) have a rich history and developed culture, but a lot Gargoyles fan-fiction simply treats them like humans with wings.

Not every aspect of a created world has to be completely exotic, though. Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain is set in a kingdom inspired by Welsh myth, and I’m currently reading his novel The Iron Ring, based on stories and traditions from the Indian subcontinent.

In my own work, I’m also trying to make the Kingdom of Theran familiar yet unique. I’ve made pages of notes with my ideas for its politics, history, and foreign relations. Most recently I’ve been debating the need for a calendar. Our English calendar has months named after Roman gods; where should the names for the months of a Theran calendar come from?

How about you? What do you like to read? Do you enjoy imaginary visits to cultures vastly different than ours? Or do you prefer fiction with recognizable names and places?


  1. The calendar thing is always tricky. For my series, the Fallouts, the culture is heavily based on Norse mythology (so original I know) and the primary language of the world is what we would call Swedish. For the calendar I bastardised the Swedish names for the months. For another series which was basically set on Earth but had a set of gods, I used the names of the gods followed by a basic suffix.

    World building is good fun. 😀

    • I love calendars. I’ve pored over the appendices at the end of the Lord of the Rings where Tolkien lays out the Shire calendar. More than just new names for the months, he has holidays and “leap days” figured in as well. I’d love to do something like that, but the question is: do I need to? Does that much detail enhance the experience, or does it just bog down the story with triviality?

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