A way with worlds: 42 – Without Words by Steven Savage of Seventh Sanctum

You’ve got your own (or borrowed) world. You know the language. It’s so well designed it’d put Tolkein to shame. You’ve got terms, you’ve got slang, you’ve got speech patterns. Your world has communications!

No, it doesn’t. Not completely.

Language, speech, is just one method of communication, and there are many more methods. In designing your world, its inhabitants, its cultures, and in writing your stories you have to deal with non-verbal communication as well.

This is also important in writing. People do not just stand around and speak (though in some stories it may read that way). They gesture, they look for clues in a person’s eyes, they wear clothes to give people a certain impression. Writing people is more than writing about what they say.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but so can a gesture, a symbol, or an expression. Below are common areas of non-verbal communication you’ll want to deal with in designing your settings.

INVOLUNTARY ACTIONS:
Blushing, stammering, turning pale – all forms of communication even if we’d rather they not happen.

Our bodies communicate a number of ways that our minds are not necessarily involved in. Sometimes we can control these reactions, sometimes we can’t – and characters may vary in what sets off these involuntary actions and if they can suppress them.

If you’re designing non-human races, be aware of these kinds of communication as well. An alien’s tentacles may twitch when he’s nervous, or a fish-person’s gills turn blue when he’s embarrassed. Learning these involuntary actions can even be a vital part of some stories.

GESTURES:
We’ve heard the term “speaking with our hands,” and if you think about it, gestures can play an enormous part of communications. Peace signs, shaking hands, putting a finger to one’s lips to indicate silence, winking knowingly – all forms of communication.

Gestures, like words, can vary widely between different cultures, but all are simply using more than the mouth to communicate information. Watch people in a conversation for a few minutes and notice how much is said by gesture. Also, if there are people who gesture’s give away too much they may try to restrain themselves as gesture verges on an involuntary action.

EXPRESSION:
Gesture’s cousin and sister to involuntary actions. We rely on expressions a great deal, but we rarely think of them. A smile, a frown, a snarl can say a great deal. Some may be deliberate, some may not be.

Humans are very facially-oriented. Indeed, one of my hobbies is learning to draw, and I started with the human face. The level of detail on one face is amazing, even in simple styles – on one face you have a mouth (with lips and teeth), two eyes, two eyebrows, and skin that can turn a variety of shades.

Keep in mind how characters in your world regard and use expression, and much like gestures, take a look sometime at people communicating and notice the role it plays.

CLOTHES AND APPEARANCE:
Clothes say a lot. Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, but clothes can be used as tools of communication. A smartly-pressed business suit can tell someone you’re a professional (of what sort may be a question, admittedly). Casual clothes may say you don’t care or that you’re relaxing. A soldier’s uniform communicates a great deal about him or her, especially if its formal with a display of medals.

What clothes say and how varies widely with culture (if clothing is even used much at all). Think over the role of appearance in your world, of the meaning of uniforms and particular parts of clothing. Are gloves a symbol of aristocracy? Are boots seen as crude footware for the working class?

Also, hairstyle, jewelry, and other ways to alter ones appearance can be used for communication.

SUMMARY:
When designing a world, think about more than language and speech when working out and writing how characters communicate. Consider all the other ways people can say something, even if they don’t want to. It’ll make your world and your writing a richer and more believable place.

A Way with Worlds is hosted at:

 

The complete works are archived at the Way With Worldsarchive.
A German translation is in the works at 
Christian Spliess’s Page

Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Steven Savage, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.

Leave a Comment

css.php