What is a Wordsmith, Anyway?

Rii the Wordsmith. I always thought it had a nice ring to it. But what is a wordsmith, anyway?

A smith, dictionary defined, is one who works with metals. A blacksmith would be the guy who makes stuff out of iron and steel and whatnot. And then there’s the goldsmith, who works in gold, usually artful sorts of things. There’s not really such a thing as a leathersmith, or a silksmith, or a plasticsmith. I suppose, if you play Kingdom of Loathing, there’s meatsmithing, but otherwise that’s nonsense. Smithing seems limited to metal.

So why wordsmith?

Words aren’t so different from ore and metal bars. Language can be raw, or it can be refined. One could argue that language is more useful when it’s refined, since it can better express what is desired. Certainly, language is far prettier when refined. And words are weapons, or tools, or protection, or glamor. Words cut as well as any sword. Words can defend against such attacks as plate mail defends against the sword. Words build up others, build up nations, inspire others to action, and destroy.

Language is malleable. The meanings of words are, too, as words are bent into puns and double entendres.

And language is a craft.

Picking just the right word to complete a sentence is like picking just the right jewel to affix into the gold piece, the necklace or crown or earring. Such skill takes knowledge and an eye for beauty…or maybe an ear, in the case of words.

Why wordsmith? Because when I write, I pound out words into sentences. When I polish up, I grind off unneeded words that fly away like little metal shavings. When I put in the finishing touches, I take care with my word choice.  And when I’m done, I’m exhausted.

My first draft, and even my second draft, may not be perfect in prose. But then, if a smith were to provide his own ore, the first step would be to procure said ore, unrefined and ugly. That’s the first draft. The second step would be to refine the ore – but a gold bar is not a beautiful work of art; it’s still, in effect, a raw resource. That’s the second draft. Subsequent drafts, those are the art: pulling the gold into wire, shaping the wire, melding the wire into something of beauty, setting in gems…wordsmithing is an editing skill, primarily.

So what is a Wordsmith? Perhaps not one from whom words flow perfectly on the first try…but by the finished copy, there are no words out of place.

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This Post is Eventually About Writing

Hello minions. I’m back and I’m sorry for the delay, but I hope you all enjoyed Tyler’s unit on conlangs.

As for me, well.

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I’ve found a doctor who actually listens carefully to my concerns – you wouldn’t think that’s so hard to find – and we’re starting the magical adventure of finding the right drug. My anxiety is getting totally out of hand, you see – I had a panic attack over how upset I was that I was so uncontrollably anxious that a friend texted me something ambivalent that I could stretch to sound like they didn’t want to be friends anymore. The whole thing was so utterly ridiculous.

So far, I’m on something that converts a portion of my anxiety (and probably depression) into exhaustion. The going rate is really high so I basically want to just sleep all day. Which is why I missed last week and this week is late. I also can’t sleep all day because I have a two-year old. Also it is only a portion of anxiety because I still get anxious over nothing.

Part of what’s bothering me about this whole anxiety business – aside from the fact that it totally sucks and is debilitating and I don’t even have any good coping mechanisms because unlike my other disorders, this came out of nowhere once I became an adult – is that it is, unsurprisingly, easily triggered by things relating to writing. One thing that scares me really badly is that my writing group will kick me out. It’s 100% just mental disorder anxiety; my writing group is made of friends and I’m actually not a bad writer, no matter what voices in my head tell me. And that’s bad enough on its own.

But I’m trying to get finished with my final draft and get querying and there’s no way I won’t be paralyzed by this anxiety crap. I mean, what if people don’t like my book!?

Well. Not everyone will. I find myself getting into a mindset where I think, “Yeah but…if it’s a good book, like, why wouldn’t they?” Not exactly consciously, but it’s somewhere in my head. If someone doesn’t like it, it must mean that the book wasn’t good enough, because if it was good enough, no one could resist it!

Although…I think that mindset, which isn’t true, is why people get so defensive about their fandoms. I mean, I’ve had more than a few Dr. Who fans get really, really upset with me because I don’t really like Dr. Who. Perhaps they feel I’m insulting the awesomeness by not enjoying it myself – like I’m saying it’s not awesome because otherwise, I’d like it.

And I appreciate this view. Because I have nothing against Dr. Who. I just have a harder time enjoying things that are sci-fi like or scary. I can see why other people would like it! I enjoy Dr. Who memes if I get them. But it’s just not really my thing.

It’s a good show. I just don’t enjoy it.

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And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that Dr. Who isn’t good enough for me. It’s just that I enjoy a different type of story. Which turns my mind to my bestie and I and our taste in books. We both like fantasy, but the types of fantasy, the styles of writing we like, are usually diametrically different. The only books that we’ve both enjoyed are McCaffery books. And it’s not about quality or anything, it’s just style. I liked The Hobbit, but the trilogy is a bit, er, stuffy for me. She adores LOTR. I love Brandon Sanderson and want to be him when I grow up. She didn’t enjoy him so much. It’s just different tastes and that’s okay. Like different talents mean we all have something to add, it just means that we all have something to take, too. And all that adding means we need lots of different takers.

So if some people don’t like your story, that’s okay. Not everyone will, and it doesn’t mean that your story is any less awesome. It’s just chocolate when they prefer strawberry.

Course, if your anxiety is a friggun mental disorder, that’s a different story – totally irrational, totally out of your control. If you’re dealing with that too, I’m so sorry – and good luck on your journey, whether it takes you to therapy, drugs, or something else entirely.

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As “Easy” as ABC

Writing systems can be just as hard to come up with as the language itself, so here are a few tips for doing it right.

The first question that you have to ask yourself is how many of the speakers of the language know how to write. Is writing reserved for nobility and monks holed up in monasteries devoting years to scribing sacred texts? Or are little children being taught to write in schools across the globe? Because the more people there are that write the language, the simpler it is going to become.

Let’s take a look at the English alphabet. Out of the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet, only six of them require more than one stroke of the pen: f, i, j, k, t, and x. Now, granted, in school that’s not how they teach it. I was taught to make a p by drawing a straight line and then a circle to the right of that line at the top. But that is not at all how I write a p when I’m writing something by hand. My p is one stroke comprised of a really thin oval that ends in a loop. It is much faster than drawing a line and a circle, and importantly it is just as recognizable as a p. And the faster people write the harder it is for really complicated symbols to remain legible. People are going to figure out what bits of the letters are not needed for recognition and cut those out.

Speaking of the English alphabet and simplification, did you know that there used to be more than 26 letters? There used to be another s, often called the long s. It’s the letter that looks a lot like an f (the only real difference is that the strike through the long s only extends to the left instead of both directions like for f) and gives us texts that look like they’re talking about ‘bleffings’ when they are talking about ‘blessings’.

truecopie_1585_aivThere was no difference in sound between a long s and an s (the rules for which to use depended entirely on where in a word the s appeared) and it was easy to mistake the long s for an f so eventually people stopped using the long s and we are left with just the s we know and love. German solved this problem by developing the eszett ß, which is a long s connected to a regular s. In practice, however, I usually have seen people write ß as just a B with a tail, because it’s easier to write.

The loss of the long s demonstrates the next important part of developing a writing system: writing will tend towards symbols that are easily distinguishable from one another. When we’re reading something, we don’t want to have to sit there and think “Is that an f or an s?” It impedes reading and if enough people are reading on a daily basis those sorts of possible confusions are not going to last long. I suspect this is why English cursive writing has been dying. While it is faster to write in cursive (due to the fact that you have to pick up your writing implement a lot less), the letters are much more similar to each other and thus harder to read. (And sure, the ability to type which means people just write less in general, too.)

Let’s take a moment to mention Tengwar, the alphabet used to write Quenya. Take a look at this alphabet and see if you notice anything.

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The characters are all super similar. If you look at the top chart of this graphic, every letter in the chart is just a rotation of or adds a line to one of the letters in the first column. You can go even further and say that all the letters in that first column are simple variations of the letter for r at the bottom of the column so that the whole top chart is essentially simple variations on one letter. This works because Quenya is the older Elven language, mostly only used by royalty and whatnot, so it isn’t that big of a deal that the writing system is so homogeneous. I mean, compare it to this old handwritten English Bible and it’s not so difficult to see a writing system like Tengwar surviving among the upper echelons.
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But Tengwar would not work for a writing system used for fast transactions between everyday people. It just wouldn’t survive. It would be diversified so that the letters were easily distinguishable at a glance. And while the new form would be recognizable as having evolved from the old, looking at the two side by side would be about as weird as looking at modern and old English side by side.

One last thing I want to consider when using an alphabet system is whether or not all sounds are represented. In traditional Hebrew writing, vowels are completely absent. Vowel points weren’t added until people started learning Hebrew as a second language. Native speakers just didn’t need the vowels to understand and read the words. If your language is more vowel heavy, perhaps you could only have symbols for the vowels and add small marks for the consonants.

There is a lot more you can do with the writing system for your language. You can choose whether to have one symbol for each sound or to use combinations of symbols for some sounds, like how English uses sh. You could decide to use a syllabic system instead of an alphabetic system, or use a system that assigns symbols to whole words like Chinese does. Or you could use a system that mixes and matches, like the use of kanji and hiragana in Japanese. Or maybe you have a language that isn’t written at all. Each of these choices can be shaped by the history that produced the language (like how Japanese kanji is essentially stolen from China) and can help you to make a language that feels real.

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Word Diversity

Now that we’ve talked a little bit about how to begin creating words for your language, let’s talk about some strategies for diversifying your lexicon.

One of the common pitfalls when constructing a language is just making it English (or whatever your native language is) with different words. In every language pair that I know, there are some words that just can’t translate directly from one language to the other. My favorite example of this is between Albanian and English. In Albanian there is an adjective (i mërzitur) which essentially encapsulates any negative emotion other than anger and fear… and jealosy. And probably some others that I just can’t think of right now. So okay it isn’t ALL negative emotions but it’s a lot. For example, if I was wanting to translate ‘annoyed’ I would use mërzitur, but I would also use mërzitur to translate bored. So if I wanted to translate the sentence “I’m not annoy; I’m just bored” I would end up saying that I’m not mërzitur, I’m just mërzitur. But the truth is that mërzitur is neither annoyed nor bored. Those are just the best English words to describe the emotion of mërzitur. While just having a one-to-one correspondence between English and your language might make coming up with words easier and might make it easier to learn, it breaks the illusion that this language could have evolved naturally in the world of your story.

There are lots of ways you can make your language distinct. Let’s look at words for different kinds of precipitation. English has many different words for different kinds of precipitation. There’s rain, there’s sleet, there’s snow, there’s hail, etc. Albanian has words for rain (shi), snow (borë), and hail (breshër), but it doesn’t have a word for sleet. They just say “borë me shi”, literally “snow with rain”. To try to make your language distinct you can take any granularity of idea and choose to make a word that represents that. Maybe your language could have ten different words for different types of rain but only one word for sleet, snow, hail and any other form of frozen rain. Take a word that has a very broad meaning in English and dissect the concept into several words. Or take several very specific words and combine them. You can decide whether to do this with a whole new word or with a compound word.

There’s another important reason, aside from authenticity, that you should avoid just directly translating on a one to one basis: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This theory states that the language we speak affects our cognitive functions, that it literally can change how we think. There’s actually a fair amount of evidence for this. There is a certain tribe (I think in Africa but I’m not certain) that does not have a word for ‘blue’ but does have a whole bunch of words for different shades of green. They did an experiment where they had several squares of green and one blue square and when asked to point out which square was different they weren’t able to do so, even though an English speaker easily could. Interestingly, when they had several green squares and one of them was just slightly off in hue, most English speakers couldn’t tell the difference, but people form this tribe could tell the difference as effortlessly as we can tell blue and green apart. In my own experience, I know that I am almost an entirely different person when I’m speaking Albanian than when I’m speaking English. The simple act of switching languages visibly changes how I act. In English I am very reserved and thoughtful. In Albanian I can be much louder and more boisterous. In English I will rarely talk over someone. In Albanian I’d do it in a heart beat. I am much more extroverted in Albanian than I am in English and some of that is probably due to the circumstances surrounding my learning of the two languages but some of it, and I would argue more of it, is also just due to the nature of the languages.

This is why taking the time to thoughtfully create a language is so important. Because culture affects language and language affects culture. Your language should be shaped by the world it is created for and that world needs to also be shaped by that language. That is how you get a great conlang that helps to build your world.
(Sorry it’s a day late – Tyler got this to me in time but I was trying to finish up Halloween costumes and forgot to post it.)
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Smith Some Words

Now that you have the sounds that your language can make and how they interact with each other, you can begin to come up with words.

How many words do you think you need in your conlang? Well, a 2013 (admittedly not super scientific) study revealed that adult native English speakers generally know somewhere between 20,000 and 35,000 words. So get cracking!

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Hyah! Hyah!

Now, if that number seems daunting, there are a few rays of hope. First, the same study found that non-native speakers who lived in English speaking countries generally know about 10,000 English words. So 10,000 is probably enough for most day-to-day purposes. But that number is still pretty big. How can you come up with 10,000 words that sound consistent but also different enough to be clearly distinguishable? The answer is: you don’t.

That 20-30k figure is not counting distinct meanings, but distinct words. So “happy” and “happiness” were counted as two words, even though the only difference in meaning between the two is how they are used in a sentence (happiness being a noun form of the adjective happy). When you’re coming up with your language, you should take advantage of this. Create root words and then figure out how to modify them for use in different situations (i.e. parts of speech) and variants of meaning.

There are a few ways you can build words once you have the building blocks to do so. One of the most common is to use affixes. Two kinds of affixes that English speakers should be familiar with are prefixes and suffixes, but in case you haven’t heard the terms a prefix is something like “un” which we can stick on front of a root like “happy” to make the word “unhappy” while a suffix is the same thing only applied to the end of the word (“ness” in the previous paragraph). What English speakers tend to be less familiar with is infixes, which is an affix stuffed into the middle of a word. This is not common in English. In fact, I have only ever heard one infix in English as far as I can remember and its use as an infix is a rather recent addition. It can be seen in the word “fan-f-ing-tastic”. There’s actually even more kinds of affixes than just these three and I would highly recommend you take a look at the list Wikipedia has. It gives some good examples.

So come up with root words and affixes and you can start constructing all sorts of words and get well on the way to that 10 or 20 or 35k (or more) lexicon.
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Working Towards Words

So you’ve decided to set out on this wonderful adventure of creating your own language. In the last post I talked about how to select the sounds available in your language. Now we’re going to talk about building up towards words.

Another important consideration for picking sounds is how they interact with one another. There are certain sounds that are just easier to make after each other, so dialects tend to gravitate towards those combinations. Take a moment and say the word ‘tree’ a few times. Really pay attention to how you pronounce it. Did you notice it? In most American dialects of English, the ‘tr’ is not just pronounced as just a ‘t’ followed by an ‘r’; the ‘r’ changes the ‘t’ to a ‘ch’ so that most Americans pronounce the word ‘tree’ as ‘chree’. Consider also the “tt” in “butter”, especially how it’s pronounced as a curious “not a d, not a t” in some parts of the US. Given long enough and enough cultural importance, this sort of dialectical change can become the norm for the language. So try to think of ways sounds can interact in your language. Maybe your ‘a’ is always nasal after an ‘n’ or ‘m’. Maybe succeeding an ‘e’  sound with an ‘r’ sound causes the ‘e’ to become a schwa, as it does (in most instances) in German.

Another thing to consider is where sounds can be placed in syllables and words. In Japanese for instance syllables have a very regular structure. It is so regular in fact that two of the Japanese “alphabets” are made up of syllables rather than sounds. With the exception that vowels can stand alone and n can appear without a vowel (although it’s technically a different “n” than the other five that are paired with a vowel), Japenese syllables are always a consonant followed by a vowel.

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Note that some consonant sounds are possible but aren’t listed here (like “p” and “b”), some simply aren’t present at all, and that not all consonants have every possible combination with vowels (w and y).

A sample Japanese word would therefore be “wakarimasu” or “wakarimasen” (I understand/I don’t understand). In speech, the “u” at the end of “-masu” is likely to be whispered so it might sound just like “wakarimas” with a softer “s” due to the whispered “u”. However, it’s still there, and still follows the rule that all (but one) consonants are followed by a vowel. You can immediately know that “përshkruaj” is not a Japanese word since there are four consonant sounds in a row. (For anyone interested, përshkruaj is the Albanian word for “to describe”.) The same thing can be done with words. Looking back over the text suggests that in English it is much more common for a word to end with a consonant sound than a vowel sound, even though consonants are only roughly 60% of the sounds available in English (don’t let the alphabet fool you; we’re talking about sounds, not letters).

You can make these kinds of decisions about your language. Maybe words cannot end with vowels in your conlang. Maybe they have to end with a vowel. Maybe an “s” can only appear after an “f”. Be as creative as you like, remembering that the rules you make will affect how your language sounds. If all words end with a consonant, especially percussive consonants like b, p, and d, then your language will sound more choppy and hard. Conversely, languages that always end with vowels can seem more open and flowing.

With those things decided, we are finally ready to start making words.

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Do You Want to Build A Language?

Hello, Readers! This is Tyler again. As Rii is still focusing her alternate endeavors, I want to take this opportunity to do some more blog posts on conlanging.

In my posts last week, I mentioned that creating a good conlang is staggeringly difficult. So I want to give you some tips to aide you if you decide to undertake creating a language.

Where do you begin when inventing a language? I like to take a bottom up approach, starting with the sounds of the language and building up words and grammar from there. If you’ve studied any foreign language, you will probably have an idea that not every language has every sound possible for a human to make. For example, English does not have the German ue, whereas German does not have the English w. It’s not too hard to add sounds from languages other than your own, because they’re exciting and new and who doesn’t love that? But sometimes it can be almost torturous to exclude sounds that we are familiar with. How can you exclude something so basic as say an ‘m’? You can’t have the word ‘malevolent’ without an ‘m’, and is that really the kind of language we want to live in?

There is a good reason (beyond making it more natural) to kill your darlings and omit sounds from your language. Take Parseltongue from Harry Potter. It is supposed to be a language used to speak with snakes. If you listen to the examples we have in the movies you’ll notice that there are a lot of s’s and sh’s as well as a lot of vowels which are made without moving your jaw much. It is missing pretty much any sound that requires lips (like p and b). The overall effect is that it sounds like we would imagine a snake speaking because it has a very hiss-like quality to it. That effect is achieved largely through the choice of sounds available to the language. If you’re trying to write a stereotypical orcish language you might decide to use a lot of hard sounds like p, b, d, and g and have relatively few vowels. The IPA reference chart can be a very useful tool in your attempt to choose the sounds which can give your language the right feel.

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Although it does take a bit of time to learn what all the symbols mean.

Another thing to consider is what combinations of sound are allowed, and what sounds aren’t. Consider “brick”. I’m sure you know that “brick” is an English word, although “br” is not a sound combination in other languages. Likewise, “blick” which isn’t an English word, could be. It shouldn’t sound so weird to you that you couldn’t imagine it meaning something, regardless of whether or not it does now. “Bnick”, on the other hand, is not an English word, and doesn’t look or sound like it could be. “Bn” is not a valid English combination. So once you’ve chosen the sounds available to your language, choose some combinations that aren’t allowed.

You can begin to see why creating a good conlang is so hard. We’ve had to make a lot of choices so far, and we haven’t even started coming up with words yet!

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When Conlanging is the Best

In the last post I talked about conlang cons. Let me now tell you some of the benefits of conlanging.
First off, creating a conlang can be loads of fun. You can get really creative and do some really interesting things when creating a language. Is there some part of your native language that you hate? You can fix that problem in your conlang. Want to sneak in little inside jokes into the language? Go ahead. Make the name of your most hated high school teacher a swear word. Maybe it’s just because I’m a huge nerd, but conlanging is one of my favorite hobbies.

Not only can it be fun for you, but there are segments of the readership that will have loads of fun learning your language if it is well made and fleshed out. I knew someone who was fluent in Quenya and they would take their notes for class in the elven language. As I mentioned before, people have translated Hamlet into Klingon. Beyond just giving them ways to continue to love your story when they are done reading, you can also hide little gems in your story for the readers dedicated enough to learn the language. Maybe your villain reveals part of their plot in their native language because they know the heroes can’t speak their language and it gives them joy to mock them. Maybe a character’s name has symbolic meaning that is only clear if you understand the language. These little rewards for dedicated readers really helps the readers feel like you care about them, which helps build your following.
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Also stuff like this.

Okay, okay, we’ll more on to more practical reasons now.

Conlanging does wonders for worldbuilding. Have you ever watched a movie and thought “Wow, it sure is convenient that everyone here speaks the same language”? I know I have. Some books get around this by having universal translators but this seems like a bit of a cop out to me. I mean, showing that there are different languages on your world (and even more importantly in your galaxy if you’re doing sci-fi) makes it feel leaps and bounds more real. I might be off by one or two, but there are about a majillion languages on Earth. It always breaks my suspension of disbelief when a whole planet somehow just has one. It might be a small break, but it can separate a good story from a great story.

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Sometimes the translator is in fish-form. Although satires kind of get a free pass.

Another way conlanging’s benefit to worldbuilding can be astronomical is in making you really think about the history and cultures behind your story. English is a frankenstein’s monster of a language because of the history of England. The differences between Gheg and Tosk Albanian are mainly due to the fact that the Romans deported a large portion of the population to Tuscany for several centuries and when their descendants returned their Albanian had been influenced much more by Latin than those who remained behind. Have you ever thought about how “village” and “villain” look so similar? That is not by accident. Villain was originally a term for the bumpkins in the country. Since the people in the cities presumed them backwards and violent it had a negative connotation. And now that the original prejudice has at least diminished the two words are mostly disconnected in our societal consciousness, but villain has retained its negative meaning. Thinking about nuances like that forces you to examine your cultures and histories and ask why do they speak the way they do. Maybe they have no concept (and hence no word) for sarcasm, but ten different words for traitor because they’ve had a lot of political intrigue in their past. Maybe their geography means they have many different words for different types of rocks and sand, but very few words for water. You can learn a lot about a people from their language. And even if no one notices those linguistic quirks, you still benefit from critically examining the culture and history of your story.

So should you have a conlang in your story? That is, of course, up to you. Weigh the pros and cons and see if it’s worth the immense effort for your story.

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When Conlanging is the Worst

Hello, Readers! Tyler here again, and this time I want to talk a little bit about conlanging.

Conlang is short for constructed language. In other words, a conlang is any language intentionally constructed to convey meaning rather than “natural” languages that have evolved over time. English, Spanish, German, Albanian, Japanese, these are all natural languages. No one sat down and said “Well, Bob, I think we should invent English to communicate with one another.” English kind of just happened.

This is not the same thing as, say, Klingon. Klingon didn’t just come into being over time as people learned to associate certain combinations of  sounds to certain concepts. Klingon was constructed for the purpose of being an alien language in Star Trek.

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And it is so well developed that it is possible to translate entire books into it.

There are lots of conlangs out there, and while some of them were developed for “serious” “real world” use, like Esperanto and Lojban, I want to focus more on languages like Klingon, Sindarin, Quenya, Dothraki, and Atlantean which were created for works of fiction. Why did the authors decide to go through the trouble of making up a whole new language? And what things should you consider when deciding whether or not to add a conlang to your story?

 

Let’s start with the arguments against using a conlang. The first one, and I cannot stress this enough, is that creating a (quality) conlang is really, really hard. Sure, you can throw a bunch of made-up words together and just throw them onto the page and not think about it any more. I suppose that would probably be okay if the conlang is only supposed to show up once or twice and there isn’t much to “translate” into the conlang. But if it is going to be used as frequently as Klingon or Sindarin that probably won’t cut it. Because most of the benefits of a good conlang are a result of the hard work required to make it good. In some cases it might simply not be worth it. Sometimes it would just be better to mention that the character is speaking a different language and leave it at that.

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Because if you’re going to make the effort, you can’t go halfway. You will have readers who will put in the effort to learn your conlang. And if it doesn’t make sense, if it’s clear that you just threw some sounds together and slapped it on the page it will pull those readers out of the story. You will lose that reader’s trust and they will probably think twice before picking up any of your work again. And thanks to the internet, some of their frustration might lead others to not pick up your book.

But say that doesn’t bother you. Or maybe you take great effort and make the perfect, unassailable conlang. Either way there are still potential problems with adding a conlang to your story. I call this problem the Tolkien effect. When Rii and I were reading LotR together we ended up skipping large sections of the text. I can handle little pieces of a language that I don’t know but… when you have whole poems and songs that occur (seemingly) every other page I just lose interest. And when you have paragraph after paragraph of Gimli explaining that this mountain is called such and such by men, and such and such by elves, but the dwarves call it such and such and the mountain next to it is called such and such by men and such and such by elves but such and such by dwarves and the mountain next to that is called…. man it makes me cringe just remembering it. Sure, there are LotR fans who love it. But there’s a reason why the Kingdom of Loathing (which satires everything) makes mention of a “fantasy storybook that reads like the Bible” and the PC also skips all the songs. It’s rarely a good thing when you make your reader want to skip part of your book out of boredom. Finding that sweet spot between “why did you even bother to come up with this if you’re not going to use it” and “I GET IT, YOU INVENTED A COOL LANGUAGE” can be terribly difficult.

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“Alright, so you made a cool language, stop rubbing our noses in it.”

So, in summary, incorporating a conlang into your story well is dauntingly difficult. A lot of the time it only serves as a diversion at best and a major distraction at worst for your readers. But there must be benefits too, right? If it’s so difficult, why would so many authors and creators do it? Let’s discuss that tomorrow.

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All it Takes is One Bad Day

Hello again, Readers! This is Tyler. Today I want to talk about the (uncomfortably) thin line between heroes and villains.

The Killing Joke is one of the most popular and acclaimed of all Batman comics (and if my facebook feed is to be believed one of the most hated of Batman animated movies). The plot of the comic revolves around the Joker attempting to prove something to the world: that all that separates us from him is one bad day. One bad day could turn any one of us into the Joker.

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And who can blame him for thinking that when all it took was losing his hair to create the other biggest villain around DC?

I find this to be an interesting and fascinating idea. I tend to think of myself as a (mostly) good person (and really, who doesn’t?). But could I be pushed over the edge to become evil? Is there some combination of circumstances that would drive me to crime? I would like to think that the answer to that is “no”, but… What would I be willing to do if my wife or daughter were in danger? If a terrorist told me to push a button that would detonate a bomb and kill millions or else he would put a bullet in Rii’s head, if I am painfully honest with myself I’m not 100% certain that I wouldn’t.

There are countless examples in our society of people, good people, who turned to crime when they felt they had no other options left. What that meant, what pushed them that far, was at least slightly different for each person. But there was a point where they lost that moral battle. They experienced the Joker’s bad day.

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He was a Jedi, until he had some bad dreams and stuff.

 Now, I don’t think that the Joker was ultimately right. I think that there are people who could be run through hell and back and not give in. But I think that the Joker was much more right than anyone is really prepared to accept.

Take, for example, Superman. He is the quintessential boyscout. He is the embodiment of all that is good in the American experience, often even more so than Captain America. This is why so many Superman fans are unhappy with the Man of Steel Superman. We see Superman as an incorruptible good, the perfect counter to the Joker’s hypothesis.

Except that he’s not. In the two part Justice League episode titled “A Better World” we see an alternate reality version of Superman who is pushed beyond his limits. Lex Luthor is elected President of the United States and manages to kill the Flash. When Superman confronts Luthor, Luthor says that Superman has been his greatest accomplice. At any time, the Man of Steel could have killed Luthor and ended his evil schemes, but instead he just kept throwing Lex in jail knowing that it was only a matter of time before he escaped to continue his plots. The Flashes death was Superman’s fault for not truly stopping Luthor a long time ago. Faced with this argument and filled with rage over the death of his friend, Superman kills Luthor and goes on to change the Justice League into the Justice Lords, a totalitarian group that turns the world into a 1984 style dystopia in the name of stopping crime. Superman definitely becomes the bad guy.

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And everyone else follows suit. But I mean Superman is pretty terrifying so he could sure make a bad day for someone else, so I’m not surprised.

Now, our timeline Superman and the Justice League stop the Justice Lords, and it’s implied that this Superman wouldn’t do the same thing. But really, the only reason for that is that he isn’t put in the same situation. Superman himself admits that he can see how his alternate reality self came to the decisions he did. It was not some other Superman who turned evil. It was our Superman, put through a sufficiently bad day.

Point to any fallen hero type villain and you can trace what it was that was enough to push them over the edge. For Anakin Skywalker it was the Jedi deciding to kill the one man he thought could save his wife. For Harvey Dent in The dark Knight it is the death of Rachel in what seemed like a pointless and cruel whim of fate (helped along by a little prodding from the Joker). For Sauruman the White the dawning fear that Sauron could not be defeated caused him to turn to evil to try to survive.

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If you can’t beat them, join them as creepily as possible.

There are two interesting questions to be asked here. The first is this: if (nearly) anyone can be pushed to evil by circumstances bad enough, how accountable are your villains for their actions? How much of the blame is on the villain, and how much is on the circumstances that pushed them to be who they are?

But the more important question, I feel, is what would it take to topple your heroes? Whenever you write a story with a hero, ask yourself what it would take to drive them over the edge. What is their bad day? Of course, your answer might be “they couldn’t fall”. I suppose that’s possible. But it’s also less likely and, frankly, makes for a much less interesting character. Because if you know what could push your character over the edge, if you know where that thin line between hero and villain lies, you can push your hero as close to that line as possible and watch the wonderful, complex stories that can result. Much more interesting to me than the boyscout who can do no wrong is the hero who confronts their dark side and comes out on top. It makes them feel much more real, and ultimately more heroic. If you aren’t tempted it’s easy to do what’s right. I want to see a hero who could fall make the decisions and choices that will let them continue to stand.

Even if you decide not to push your hero that far, the knowledge you gain about them in thinking about how you would do it will help you to be able to write them better. And that is always a good thing.
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Viva la Revolution!

Hey minions!

A member of my writing group shared this article with us: 10 Lessons from Real Life Revolutions that Fictional Dystopias Ignore. It was a pretty good read, so I’d thought I’d share it, especially since that’s the genre of the day.

That said, I wanted to add my own two bits: one, remember to brush up on The Human Predicament before you write about an overhaul of the government.

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“I’m talking about an overhaul of the system. Putting the power in…different hands.”

If you’re too lazy to do so, lemmie sum up for you: the more things change, the more they stay the same. You kick out one corrupt government, and another one moves in. You remember The Hunger Games? You know how Pres. Snow was an evil douchebag and he was totally corrupt? And for those of you who read the books, you know how wannabe Pres. Coin was equally corrupt and honestly just as much a douchebag in a different way? Yeah. You kill Snow, you get Coin. Or you shoot Coin and trample Snow and hope your world is slightly less craptastic, whatever. Either way you see in history that it’s only a matter of time before we rinse, wash, and repeat. I guess that’s just how humans are.

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Though killing both evil presidential candidates is not always an option.

You also gotta remember – and this always bears repeating so I’m saying it even though it’s #9 on the link I posted – that just killing a figurehead isn’t going to do the trick. You think you kill the evil overlord and it’s over? He had, what, an entire evil empire? You think that just goes away when you kill the top guy? Hah.

Not that slaying the evil overlord isn’t a fancy way to end a book, but don’t leave off like everything is better when it’s not.

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Even if you did fight Emperor Ghestal – the guy falling off the cliff – you’d STILL have Kefka. But he did the job for you.

Finally, if you’re only writing a dystopia because they’re the soup de jour…you miiight want to look up what experts have to say about writing a soup de jour book in the middle of its popularity – usually, at least what I’ve heard, it’s “don’t” because it’ll be out of chic by the time you get it to market, so just a heads-up there. You can look to the vampire fad as an example. My own personal belief is that if you’re doing it because it’s Your Book, the One You Want to Write, then hey, write it. Vampire sci-fi dystopia that will be out of style tomorrow but is your passion – well, it’s gonna have your soul in it, right? So it’s still worth writing. But I also am not the person to take marketing advice from (what I said at the beginning of the paragraph is parroted from other people, not my personal advice) so y’know, maybe if you write something with all your love and passion, it’ll be turned away for being out of style…but it’s still my belief that you should write what you love to write, what’s in your heart trying to burst out. And maybe if you take the time to write a dystopia well with all these bits that always get ignored, you’ll stick out enough it won’t matter that there’s a million other dystopias out there, or if they’re even still the genre of the day.

A note – October is also Inktober – it’s like NaNo, where you ink a picture every day. I’m more a writer than an artist (though I can draw fairly well) so it’s something I’d normally ignore…but there’s a comic about mental illnesses that I keep thinking about and thinking about and feeling like I should really actually draw it. This means that I’m not planning on writing posts in October. I’ll see if Tyler can post some, but I’m going to put all my focus into making this comic.

Thanks for your support. Good luck bringing down the castle!

Posted in General Writing, Making Villains (Making Villains la-la-la!) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment