Aliens talking

by Brittney Dotson
(Arizona)

Question: If I have aliens that speak English but still use their own language occasionally, how do I explain the meanings of those words without out right saying the definition? For example, if I have one character call his mate 'lawe' their word for love, how do I tell the reader that that is what that means, or do I simply need to make an index in the back of the book that has definitions for them to see?


Answer: Whenever you make a reader work harder to understand the story, you run the risk of losing them.

In the case of an alien language, if readers have to keep flipping back and forth to a glossary, most likely they'll just abandon the book. The flipping would interrupt the flow of the story and undermine their enjoyment of it.

You can use a few alien words to create a sense of authenticity regarding these characters (as in your example). However, try to use them in a context where the reader can easily infer their meaning. You can also get away with a few alien technical terms if you define them in the text -- for example, if an alien explains a word in his language to a human. But try to do this sparingly.

Also, exposition should never feel like a sidebar. Feed the reader little bits of information as needed but in a way that doesn't interrupt the story.

Bottom line: above all else, readers want a story they can get emotionally involved in, not a course on learning a fictional language. If you give them a great story, they may get interested in your fictional culture. But don't sacrifice story telling for the sake of showing off your world-building.

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