World Building: How Sayings Define a People


A friend of mine went to Cuba last year. When she came back, she downloaded her experience to me over lunch. Of course, I loved hearing about her adventures and the people and food. But, the thing that intrigued me the most (from a writer’s perspective) was what she observed as she interacted with and observed an oppressed group of people.

When you go through something fierce with someone, even if that person is a stranger, a peculiar sort of camaraderie develops. This shared experience binds you. In a country where every aspect of your life is limited, a similar culture develops. As people greeted one another and interacted, my friend would consistently hear them say to one another, “The struggle is real.” Four small words. But they say so much about the situation these people face every day.

And there’s a lesson here for writers. When you’re world building, consider the experiences that bind a people together, even if the people you are creating aren’t going through oppression. This can be as small as two individuals or as large as a whole country. Or, it could just be a saying that defines a people or some aspect of their lives. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a mark of oppression.

If you look for it, you can see it in numerous places in literature. I just finished reading the Lotus War books (Stormdancer, Kinslayer and Endsinger) by Jay Kristoff. The world his characters live in is choked with “chi” and the people are absolutely oppressed in many ways.  Chi, produced from the lotus, is their commerce, their escape, their power and their curse. The people in control of the government force others to say “the lotus must bloom.” It’s a mantra and almost like a blessing or a greeting among people. But to those who are awake, it is oppressive. Thus, the resistance coined their own phrase. “The lotus must burn.”

It’s amazing what this small elements adds to a story. I find it to be endlessly intriguing and feel that it adds so much to the world, no matter whether the phrase coined by those in power or a voice of the resistance.

Other stories do this or similar things. The Hunger Games has a phrase, “May the odds ever be in your favor,” and a gesture, the kissing of your three fingers and then holding them aloft. The Handmaid’s Tale, written in 1986 by Margaret Atwood, has a special phrase spoken among handmaidens, “Blessed be the fruit.” The person responding says, “May the lord open.” I’ve read that this exchange is supposed to encourage fertility. To say goodbye, the handmaids say, “Under his eye.” This phrase reminds them of who is watching them, everyone from God to their commanders, to fellow handmaidens.

As I continue the world building process for my next project, NightWind, I have been thinking about phrases/sayings that define a people. In the city-state Burga and the greater country (as yet to be named), there was a huge reliance on a “spark.” This spark could only be created by mystics. Now, there are only a few mystics left in this world where the spark, or magic, once existed. I will need a phrase that revolves around the spark concept. But, originally, I had created a number of wind-based sayings that are meaningful to Rion and the people of Burga. One phrase I’m considering include: “May the spark ignite.”

Before I had decided on a method and mechanism for the wings my Aviatrix will use to fly, I had been turning over wind phrases. The wind will be of endless importance to the Aviators because they are an elite group of flying soldiers (air force? airmen?) whose battle names come from their first dive off the cliff with their wings.

Because these are not an oppressed people, the phrases I’m coming up with are more expressions of a culture. They include parables or lessons as opposed to hidden, or not-so-hidden, messages of resistance. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

  1. We must rely on the wind beneath our wings.
  2. Weather any storm. Ride the wind.
  3. The will of the wind.
  4. In the winds of change, we find our rightful path.
  5. If there is wind, there is hope.
  6. And for the Aviators (the 9 airmen and the 1 aviatrix):
    1. One flock.
    2. Unity. Bravery. Flight. (Still playing around with this phrase a bit)

Coming up with sayings that define the people of Burga and the airmen has been really useful as I flesh out this world for my next project. It’s a fun way to get to know my characters and will add a layer of depth to their world once I begin the writing process.

Have you ever created a saying or a phrase to define a people for your own writing? Please share in the comments!

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