Fantasy & Sci Fi Terms: Terms for Magic & Technology

There’s a great technique in writing, especially in Fantasy or Science Fiction, where you use an existing word as a word for magic or technology. That’s a really great way to give your story character and make your world stand apart from others. The only problem arises when you forget and also use the word the way you normally would:

  1. Seeing the vampires approach, Lyr shifted and was on them instantly in a flash of fur and claws.
  2. As the silence turned grim and threatening, Lyr shifted uneasily in his chair.

The first one would be an example of the author’s new meaning where “shift” becomes the word that shows the man transforming between man and beast. But once that’s established as the meaning of the word, using it normally (like in the 2nd example) becomes less clear. Is he shifting back and forth between beast and man forms? That’s very possible, and I have seen stories where the next sentence made it clear that, yes, that’s what the author meant.

On the other hand, if that’s not what the author meant (say the people watching Lyr on a hidden camera aren’t supposed to know that he can become a beast), then, any confusion caused by using “shift” normally here could make the reader think there are continuity problems.

In that situation, the best way to avoid confusion is to only use the word for its new meaning. Throwing in a synonym for the second situation can go a long way to making the story clearer to your reader.

That’s most likely to be a problem with verbs because they tend to be a single word and look no different from the common use. When it comes to names of things, on the other hand, you can generally circumvent the issue altogether by using multiple words or a phrase.

Take the words, “source” and “true.” They’re both normal, commonly used words. When Robert Jordan put them together and capitalized them, however, they became the core of magic in his worldbuilding. The “True Source” means something else than “true source.”

There are two very good tricks we can learn from that example:

  1. Capitalization helps. If you’re changing a word or words to have a new and very specific meaning, capitalizing the words will help the reader know when you’re using the normal meaning and when you mean the new, special thing you invented.
  2. Combine words that don’t usually go together. If you want a phrase for using magic to walk on air, “walk lightly” isn’t the best choice because it’s not that uncommon otherwise. And the more common a phrase you pick, the more likely you’ll want to capitalize it. Or, again, avoid it in nonmagical situations.

When it comes down to it, most of us have enough to watch for without adding in words to stop using. So if you can make the term for your magic or technology more uncommon, you’ll save yourself time and trouble in the long run. And it won’t hurt as far as making your world more unique, either.

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