Posted by: Casey Lybrand | June 30, 2010

Questions About Games, Idioms, and Worldbuilding

I am writing a villain [1] right now, and I find myself reaching for game idioms, not so much for her, but for how the protagonist approaches her. Here are two examples:

she wasn’t sure how to play her hand

The pieces were beginning to fall into place.

Now! I realize these are terrible cliches [2]; these specific phrases will almost certainly be cut out in revision and replaced with something more compelling to read. This has, however, gotten me thinking about games, and idioms, and worldbuilding. I have given a fair bit of thought to cultural worldbuilding [3] as I write my SFF novel, but an aspect I have not yet considered is games.

My people – in their alternate world – would undoubtedly play games [4], but what sort? Do they have cards, do they have dice? What do their games of chance look like, how are they measured? If they have pieces to fall into place, what would those pieces be? What constitutes strategy, what are the markers of fair play? I need to find some answers to these questions. (Helpful hints are always appreciated!)

I’m also thinking about the phrase “gearing up” – not that I’m using it in my draft, just in a general sense. I said last night that I was “gearing up” for something, then I wondered if it was a phrase from sports, or a phrase from war, which has been drafted as a sports phrase, as martial terms often are (for example, draft, rally, scrimmage). I’m pretty clear on the general concept of using words from battle to talk about sports – that tracks for me, culturally – but I’m wondering if I’ve gotten this phrase wrong. Is “gearing up” a machine metaphor — as in a car, perhaps — and not the gear we wear for battle or for sports, as I initially thought?

I want to try to figure this one out, not because “gearing up” is relevant to my writing right this moment, but because of general curiosity about words and how we use them. I’ll let you know what I find out. If you know the answer, please let me know, as well. (Guesses are more than welcome.)

So what are you thinking about, with regard to idioms in your writing? It’s not only an issue in science fiction and fantasy; different people draw on different idioms based on their backgrounds, experiences, and what they find relevant and compelling — even in the real world. Do you find you have to give your characters a different set of references than the ones you yourself would normally use?

1: So this villain! I love writing her. She does not think she is a villain, though she is bad news for Our Heroes, and she enjoys that a bit too much. She is ambitious and loyal, and working quite at cross purposes to the protagonist. I think she is a good antagonist. I’m calling her a villain her mostly in jest, partly because she wants to run away with the scene!
2: I know, I know: edit, please!
3: There’s a bit more in this comment, if you are interested.
4: I’ll try to write something up about games and sports play across cultures as I research.


  1. Interesting about games, something I’ve never thought about not being very sporty minded. I remember reading about some ball game the Mayans used to have, maybe you could turn to history to see what games were once played and change them slightly, that’s something that I’d do. My people were too busy fighting other tribes to play, at least that what it appears to be like at the moment :-)

  2. Idioms can be a very useful tool to give a character depth, you can tell a lot about a person from the kind of language they speak! But if the author uses idioms randomly, it can easily become very annoying…
    oh and,I LOVE writing & reading about villains! They are fun, especially when they are relatable, they are the people we love to hate! :)

  3. Agatha, I’m not that much into sports myself, or cards & boardgames, either. I think that’s why I overlooked that area in worldbuilding! It didn’t occur to me until the idioms came out in my writing.

    And you’re right, ball games were/are culturally important throughout Mesoamerica (and other places, too). Here’s a bit of an overview of what the Maya were up to with their ballgame.

    It’s not so much that I want my people to play sports. (Though maybe a bit, or they might see other people playing sports in some establishing scenes.) It’s more that I am writing in the character’s voices — it’s a part of providing an immersive, other world / fantasy experience to the reader. I don’t want to throw the reader out of the story by saying “she played her hand”, if the character exists in a world where card games do not exist. So I just need to give some thought to what does exist, in terms of games and sports, and limit my idioms to things they would actually say/think, having experienced them. In their world.

    Also, you have just inspired me to download a PDF on Maya ballgame! I’m going to try to read it this weekend, and maybe check out some papers about other peoples as well. (For the curious, the following link goes directly to a PDF: The Middle Preclassic Ballgame: Yucatan and Beyond.) I need to read up on this stuff!

    Lua! Random idiom! Yes, that is what I am trying to avoid. Just because I think it, doesn’t mean my characters would . . .

    I love my villain! She’s run away with my heart! I hope she is love-to-hate. She’s not evil, just on the Other Side. (She may be a bit craven, though.) And actually, there’s not really Evil in my world — as in a mystical concept — there are just people. And people can get up to some nasty stuff. My characters are dealing with some heavy things now, as the climax approaches. (I know you didn’t bring up Evil, just thinking out loud here, as usual!)

  4. Glad I inspired you Casey. Going to check out that website about the Mayan game myself, history is always fascinating.

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