Reader Preference Poll

In a secondary world where the military organization is not necessarily like American military organization but is not described in detail, what do you consider the preferable treatment of military ranks:

a) private, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, major, colonel, general

b) rank names that are taken from or based on some familiar-ish culture, such a prefect, centurion, tribune, ligatus, even if the culture is not similar to Rome

c)  rank names that are completely made up

d) a mix of some of the above, so that you would not object to made-up words for some ranks, used in combination with “captain” or other actual words for other ranks.

For no actual reason, I have been using (d) in my WIP. I have been getting less enthusiastic about this for some time. I don’t think I actually like it at all. At the end I can easily do a search-and-replace and turn all the familiar titles into created words, but should I?

The problem is, made-up names of ranks sound weird to me, especially combined with character names that are also not drawn from the English language. I feel as though things like “Amat Geras” are harder to read than “Sergeant Geras,” especially if the character is often addressed by title and name.

On the other hand, I didn’t feel this worked badly in The Mountain of Kept Memory, where the rank titles for the Tamaristans were not familiar words. But those titles were not used all that frequently in the story, so readers didn’t have to contend with seeing them all the time.

In Elizabeth Moon’s Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, the rank names were familiar words. Did anybody feel that made the world seem too familiar?

The problem with asking this question is that the world in that series is basically a straight European medieval world with elves, so it wasn’t meant to feel unfamiliar. Would you feel differently if the society was not as reminiscent of this familiar style of world?

Anybody got a good example of a military fantasy or any secondary world fantasy novel where  the rank names are both important and made up, and that actually worked well for you as a reader? If there are some, I can’t think of them — and I’ve kind of been trying — but I am probably missing some great examples.

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18 thoughts on “Reader Preference Poll”

  1. I do mostly (a), at least for the regular army. For the Order of the Sworn (elite religious knights) I have “journeyman” for aspirant members, “master” for full members, and “commander” for the boss of the Order in a town. (This has worldbuilding reasons which I won’t detail because it would be TMI here).

  2. I also have two kinds of nobility: duyin “nobles” who are from the noble families, and ludin “barons”, who adminster a town or a region in the monarch’s name. Barons can’t be noble! (They can marry nobility, though.) A friend told me I should call the barons “dukes” but that’s not what I’m used to, and anyway it’s only a rough translation of the actual term which I’m not using in fiction because when I did it, it jarred.

  3. I know I’ve read some, but am drawing a blank. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen choice (d) used successfully. ponders…

    Bujold’s Chalion setting has terms obviously based on known ones, but differing enough to say ‘not out world’ .

    Friedmans’ Harald has an ‘organization’ fololowing to one competent individual (based on Iceland, I think he said), and the terms tended to numeric: decade, octaves, terms like that. There was an imperial side with legions.

    I hope this helps.

    I think some terms, like ‘captain’ are practically invisible. Sergeant or lieutenant for some reason not so much. Captain gets used enough in enough contexts I think. Army, navy, merchant shipping…it means guy in charge of this bunch. the others are more specialized.

    I read Sheepfarmers Daughter, but is left little memory, so can’t say how the military naming worked for me.

  4. Captain and General seem like such common words that I wouldn’t bat an eyelash in any fantasy setting. Made up titles if used for the primary culture would throw me off. Fantasy military titles for a “foreign” people would just be part of their otherness to the pov people, so wouldn’t bother me.

  5. I’ve posted two comments, to this and below to the song post, and both have vanished. So.. reconstructing my thoughts I ‘d say Captain can be used anywhere – it’s a pretty general term, as shown by the use in seagoing vessels, the navy, the army, the airforce, and in such things as ‘captain’ of the wagon train. It’s a one word term for ‘the guy officially in charge of this bunch’.

    General, Sergeant, lieutenant.. general seems about like captain, but the other two not so.

    Bujold has done made up terms that sound like they’re based on English terms, but different. Like enough to be parseable to most readers without stoppping for an explanation, different enough to signal we’re in Oz, not Kansas.

    I’ve seen number terms used for military groups in a setting based vaguely on old Iceland: decade for a small group, octade for larger…it worked for the setting.

  6. Unless the worldbuilding is based on an ancient Roman AU, stick to English terms for the equivalent ranks. You are “translating” from whatever language they speak in your imaginary world to English–just as the Pacific Command (PACCOM) translated the Japanese command structure to English in WWII (most famously, the IJAGS, (eye-jag ess), the general staff of the Imperial Japanese Army.)

  7. Ilona Andrews has a lot of different military orders between their various series – for alien races & other worlds, they tend to either make up words or use familiar words in new ways, depending on how strange they want them to seem. I’m mostly thinking of the Edge and Innkeeper books.

  8. In the Tortall books Pierce just went with knights, squires, sargeants, generals, admirals, etc, and I liked that more than when she made up terms (like, rookie “cops” are Mutts, veterans are the Provost’s Dogs).

  9. It’s been awhile since I read Sherwood Smith’s Inda series, but between nobility titles and military ranks, I remember the feeling of reading a foreign language, which required a lot more concentration, but also created a feeling of a very different world. She may have used traditional military ranks, but however she wrote them, she gave the system a very distinct feel.

  10. I struggle with this too. I think if it’s an important position and you will refer to it often, giving the title an original name makes sense, since in your fantasy world a king or a duke or a captain might have a different role than what we might expect. But if it’s just used a few times, I’d just use real titles (in
    English if that makes the most sense, or another culture’s titles if you are modeling your world after another culture.)

    In my own work, I’ve combined the two. I’ve invented titles for king and chancellor, as well as my mages, because these roles aren’t quite the same as they might be in our world. At the same time, I also use terms like ‘Council’ and ‘Captain’. I felt like creating TOO many new words would be confusing, but using fictional titles for the most important ones worked.

    In the end, think about your reader. Will fictional titles bring something to the story? If not, don’t make it unnecessarily difficult on them.

  11. I like made up rankings, personally. I think McCaffrey used made up rankings for the aliens in the Freedom series. Sherwood Smith too, in A Stranger to Command.

    Yoon Ha Lee used familiar rankings in Fox Gambit etc., but also had something else (I forget). For the longest time I thought the MC’s first name was Kel (I think it’s Cheris?). But even so, I liked it. I appreciated that it was an alien system.

    But if it’s European-ish, I don’t think I’d have a problem with the familiar rankings or with the Roman ones, or with a mix of familiar and made up.

  12. Thank you all. You’ve been very helpful. I will go take a look at Sherwood Smith’s and Ilona Andrew’s series and see how they did it.

    Charlotte, I too felt that captain and general were generic enough, and then used made-up words for other ranks, but it started to seem more and more awkward as I went along.

    Peter, I agree in principal, but then I was bothered because I felt other things about the society were pretty different, and these familiar ranks were starting to sound out of place.

    I was using “file leader” for a rank something like “corporal,” which is like Ellen’s suggestion for normal words that imply function, so I will think about extending that idea.

    The numeric idea of “decade” and “octave” and so on might work well for this. Thanks for the suggestion, Elaine. I know some of your comments weren’t showing up, but I couldn’t fix that from my phone. It’s fixed now. I have no idea why WordPress sometimes de-authorizes an email address that was previously approved, but that does happen now and then. I agree that “sergeant” for some reason does not sound as generic as “captain.” That is in fact the rank that was giving me the most trouble because nothing I did with it sounded right to me.

    SarahZ, the thing that bothered me about the Beka Cooper titles was that rank designations drawn from dog words just sound stupid to me. So yes, I didn’t like that, but it wasn’t because the terms were made up, just because of how she made them up.

    Jackie, I fixed what I think was a misplaced half-sentence in your comment. If I did it wrong, let me know and I’ll de-edit the comment. If it was just a few times, I think it would be fine, but some relatively important secondary characters were causing me to use the words pretty often in some scenes. I see you also feel “captain” is pretty generic. I may keep that one. I’m not sure.

  13. I personally like a mix. A quick look at wikipedia illustrates my thinking. For example, many Roman legion ranks have close equivalents in modern military terms (e.g., an optio is similar to a lieutenant, a tessararius is similar to a staff sergeant, and a decanus is similar to a sergeant or corporal).

    On the other hand, there are specialist ranks that do not have clear modern equivalents, just as there are modern ranks that do not have ancient equivalents. That is not always the case, of course. Many specialists may have varying details but fundamentally similar roles (radioman vs. horn blower; carpenters vs. engineers).

    So my general view is that having a lot of made up words to describe a fundamentally familiar role is more stuff for me as a reader to remember. I’d prefer not to have to. But to the extent there is a role that is unique to the world, an evocative name seems appropriate, and will also serve to remind the reader that this bit is different.

    And, of course, that all assumes that the basic military organization is fundamentally similar. It’s entirely possible to have a fictional world where the military organization is quite different. Say that combat is basically decided by a handful of powerful mages. The entire military apparatus is devoted to supporting, moving, and delivering those mages to the right time and place. If only one mage shows up, they win by default. The supporting organization behind this is almost entirely intelligence and logistics. Ranks based on groups of fighters don’t make sense because there aren’t any groups of fighters as such.

    So if the military looks roughly similar in organization, I like to just see the familiar terms. Why reinvent the wheel? But if there are meaningful differences, sure, go crazy! Then it makes more sense to me to invent a new term than to try and shoehorn in a familiar term that doesn’t really fit. (Like I wouldn’t call one of the mages in the prior example a general – they aren’t really functioning as leaders of troops or making strategic decisions. They’re the tip of the spear, not the decision maker. But there’s no military rank for living thermonuclear weapon.)

  14. Also, when making up ranks, it helps the reader to have the ranks be internally consistent and easy to remember. For example, decurion = leader of ten; centurion = leader of a hundred (and yes, I know Roman centuries were not generally a hundred people, but if making the system up from scratch, that would be easiest to remember); etc. Easy to understand and extrapolate and you know immediately where each person stands in the pecking order.

    I totally agree with Jackie. Using made up names requires an effort from the reader. Always ask if the pay-off in terms of world-building or whatever is worth the ask and whether the reader will agree!

  15. Allen, I kind of like the idea of two people that matter in battle and everyone else is support staff. That would certainly change absolutely everything. Also, by coincidence you happened to hit on sort of the condition that obtains in my WIP. Not exactly, in fact quite different in some ways, and I certainly can’t just get rid of the ordinary military as would happen for your scenario, but still. You might say that in my case, figuratively speaking, there are two pieces on the chessboard that can each move like rooks, bishops, and knights, while everyone else is a pawn (that can’t turn into a queen).

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