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Consider a story set in a completely fictional place, not even necessarily on a planet, perhaps an infinite plane of uniform density or something. There is zero connection with Earth and anything that happens in this place's culture or history, beyond the characters being human.

How different should every little detail be? For example, the names of plants and animals surely wouldn't be the same as we have, since those words derive from human languages and history. But at what point of renaming everything have I gone too far? Is it important to keep myself from calling trees oak or birch or whatever? Should a salmon-like fish simply be called a salmon, or should I come up with a new word for it?

I'm asking because I seem to remember one fantasy series in particular where the earth-parallels seemed very out of place, so that's made me self-conscious about my own worlds.

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    $\begingroup$ IMHO this would be very opinion-based. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Nov 22 '19 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ "For example, the names of plants and animals surely wouldn't be the same as we have." You are using human language to describe your world. Why can't you use words again? The thing you are describing can be very far from what we experience on Earth as a whole, but it might be similar in some way to something that we know. If you use terms that your potential reader can understand and relate to, you're on the right track. Please also consider xkcd.com/483 . Choosing the right words has little to do with world building, you can have the most exotic world and still be enjoyable to read $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Nov 22 '19 at 19:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Raditz_35 It's not so much the words like "fish", as it is specific names like "salmon". I could just call it a "river fish" but it seems silly to only refer to it by that description. Point taken from the xkcd comic though. $\endgroup$ – thanby Nov 22 '19 at 19:52
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    $\begingroup$ I don't get the question. Why can't you use salmon if it fits? Why would you use salmon if it doesn't fit? It's either a salmon or not. So you have a fish in your story. Is it very similar to a salmon? If it's absolutely not and very exotic, salmon is not a good description of the thing you are referring to. What you are asking makes absolutely zero sense to me $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Nov 22 '19 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe this sort of question is better asked at Writing since inherently world building doesn't really deal with this. You could create a world that has no basis in reality at all - no humans, no animals that we would ever recognise, etc, and it can still be engaging. Or you can have a fictional world that is basically ours with a thin coat of paint in it and yet people would not find it relatable. It's more of a presentation/writing question but might maybe slightly generalised as something like "How much can I stray from the real world without losing the audience" . $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Nov 22 '19 at 20:40
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the names of plants and animals surely wouldn't be the same as we have

Required reading: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TranslationConvention

Should a salmon-like fish simply be called a salmon, or should I come up with a new word for it?

Required reading: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CallARabbitASmeerp

Beyond that, I don't think we can give you any answers that aren't overly squishy.

FWIW, the story I'm writing has much the same problem. My preference is to generally ignore it (i.e. Translation Convention fully in force) unless I have a really good (possibly plot related) reason.


I recall reading somewhere recently that Star Wars wouldn't talk about "the galaxy" because the word "galaxy" derives from the Latin for "milky way"... but that's completely stupid because of Translation Convention. Obviously the word in Star Wars' common tongue wouldn't be the English word "galaxy", but if they have a word, then, per Translation Convention, that word would be rendered as "galaxy" when presenting the story in English.

The same can go for "salmon". If you have a fish that is actually a salmon, then it's perfectly reasonable to just call it "salmon". If it's similar to a salmon, but actually something different, then it's reasonable to either call it something different, or call out that, while you (the narrator) are using "salmon" so as to not confuse readers, it's actually something else. (Or you can be lazy and use "near-salmon", with a similar explanation.)


I also need to add, there's a reason for the aforementioned tropes. Namely, if your objective is to tell a story¹, you don't want to confuse your readers more than necessary.

(¹ This is admittedly an assumption. If you are instead writing something like an in-universe encyclopedia, or anything really that leans toward world-building for its own sake, then this argument may not apply.)

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    $\begingroup$ I like where you're going with this, the rabbit link definitely applies to some extent (not so much the translation in this case, but I see where you're coming from). The salmon example is just meant to illustrate how we have a real-world species that might have an analogue in the fantasy realm, but isn't literally a salmon. Should I bother making names for these things? Or just gloss over it and say "Eh that's a salmon, good enough" and hope that doesn't break immersion? $\endgroup$ – thanby Nov 22 '19 at 22:54
  • $\begingroup$ All that being said, I think your approach to your own story might be the way I ultimately have to go, otherwise I'm going to spend too much time renaming all these otherwise-familiar things. $\endgroup$ – thanby Nov 22 '19 at 22:55
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, naming things is hard. Honestly, you might try asking on writing.SE. I would phrase it specifically as "will using recognizable names break immersion?", although even then it might still be too opinion-based. It might also help to ask for answers to cite specific examples of both possible approaches. (Looking over the TV Tropes examples may also give you some ideas.) $\endgroup$ – Matthew Nov 23 '19 at 4:09

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